Exploring Unschooling

Exploring Unschooling

EU339: Q&A Deep Dive

January 05, 2023

In this week’s Exploring Unschooling podcast episode, we’re diving deep into a listener question submitted by Jessie in Colorado. She wants to explore a quote from Free to Learn that took her off guard, which is:

One proviso, though. Unschooling won’t work well if you actively avoid having your family interact with the world, with life. Shutting out the world rather than embracing it will limit your children’s opportunities to learn, maybe to the point where school is more connected to the world than home is. Inhibiting their exploration of the world around them is not helpful or supportive of learning.

Free to Learn by Pam Laricchia

Jessie wonders if being introverted or neurodivergent makes unschooling a poor fit, since social interactions can be draining. She worries that she doesn’t have the ability to provide enough interaction for her daughter and is curious about the meaning of the quote.

As always, our Q&A conversations aren’t focused on giving anyone the “right” answer, because there isn’t a universal “right” answer for any given situation that will work for everyone. Instead, our focus is on exploring different aspects of the situation and playing with the kinds of questions we might ask ourselves to better understand what’s up. We’re sharing food for thought through the lens of unschooling and cultivating strong and connected relationships.

Submit your question for a future Q&A episode, and if you’re a patron of the podcast, be sure to mention that.

Watch the video of our conversation on YouTube.

Pam’s book, Free to Learn

EU120: Unschooling and Autism with Erin Human

EU221: Unschooling and Neurodiversity with Tara McGovern Dutcher

EU246: Unschooling and Neurodiversity with Michelle Morcate

Follow @exploringunschooling on Instagram.

Follow @pamlaricchia on Instagram, Facebook, and her website.

Follow @helloerikaellis on Instagram.

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Become a patron of The Exploring Unschooling Podcast for as little a dollar a month (in a wide variety of currencies) and help keep the podcast archive and transcripts freely available to anyone who’s curious and wants to explore the fascinating world of unschooling.

We invite you to join us in The Living Joyfully Network, a wonderful online community for parents to connect and engage in candid conversations about living and learning through the lens of unschooling. Our theme this month is Being Intentional, and we’re exploring it through the lenses of curiosity and presence.

So much of what we talk about on this podcast and in the Living Joyfully Network isn’t actually about unschooling. It’s about life. On The Living Joyfully Podcast, Anna Brown and Pam Laricchia talk about life, relationships, and parenting, through the lenses of connection and curiosity. Find the podcast in your favorite player here: The Living Joyfully Podcast.


PAM: Welcome! I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca and Anna Brown and Erika Ellis are joining me today to explore a listener question. Hi to you both.

ERIKA: Hello.

ANNA: Hello.

PAM: Now, before we get started, I just want to remind everyone that our Q&A conversations aren’t focused on giving anyone the quote “right” answer, because there isn’t a universal right answer for any situation that works for everyone. So, basically, we’re sharing food for thought through the lens of unschooling. And, Erika, do you want to get us started?

ERIKA: I do. So, this question is from Jessie in Colorado and she writes,

“My little is still a toddler, but I recently learned about unschooling and I haven’t been able to stop reading more and more. I’m currently delving into Pam’s book, Free to Learn. There is one caution in the book that took me off guard and has me worried about whether I can unschool. Pam writes,

‘One proviso, though. Unschooling won’t work well if you actively avoid having your family interact with the world, with life. Shutting out the world rather than embracing it will limit your children’s opportunities to learn, maybe to the point where school is more connected to the world than home is. Inhibiting their exploration of the world around them is not helpful or supportive of learning.’

I’m wondering if you could delve into what this means a little more, and if unschooling is likely to be a poor fit for folks who are introverted or neurodivergent in a way that makes socializing hard. We certainly go on lots of adventures, hikes, parks, library, etc., and going out can be fun, but interacting with new people is exhausting.

We have a small friend group and I struggle to find the energy to engage with people and organizations that I don’t know well, in a way I’d want to model. The idea of reaching out and making a lot of new connections is overwhelming to the point that I do now wonder if my daughter would do better in school. I know that the socialization that happens in school isn’t ideal, but I would like her to get to interact with lots of kids and adults, and I worry about my ability to provide that. I have considered sending her to tuition-free preschool just for the experience of interacting with others without me (Sudbury schools and other paid groups are not accessible to our family, both in terms of location and money), but unschooling sounds so much better.”

So, hi, Jessie, and thank you so much for your question. I’m really excited to hear Pam and Anna’s responses, too. We’re all introverts, so I know we all have a lot of experience navigating this topic.

A lot of thoughts came up for me when I read your question. First is that personality difference that you mentioned. There are just so many ways to be a human, and for someone who is introverted or who is sensitive to sound or who is overwhelmed in busy places, being out all the time in active places surrounded by people is not going to feel good. But living in alignment with that is not the same thing as shutting out the world at all. My family is introverted, but we figure out what feels good for us, the frequency of outings, the number of friends, the places that we like to go. And the key for me is listening to my kids to determine if their needs are being met.

I have a friend who is also introverted like me, but she has an extremely extroverted child. And so, that can be more challenging in moments, but there is so much learning there. They’re learning about each other’s personality differences. She can push herself out of her comfort zone at times in order to meet his social needs. And she can communicate with him about her needs, as well. And there are just so many possibilities for meeting his needs that can still feel good to her. School could be one of those possibilities. But there are also co-op classes and homeschool groups and park days, play dates at friends’ houses, online gaming, spending time with extended family, having other people take him out to do activities, and so on.

So, rather than getting caught up in a kind of nebulous future fear of, what if it’s not good enough? That’s that borrowing trouble, like Anna says, instead we can ground ourselves in trusting that we will figure it out as the needs arise. In my experience, unschooling doesn’t take away possibilities. It just gives us space and time to figure out what would feel good. And there are just endless possibilities if we stay open and curious.

And your question kind of reminds me of a recent Q&A, too, where I was talking about staying in the present moment and focusing on the current needs of your child where they are right now, rather than getting pulled into worrying about the future. Over time, I’ve found that future worry is really unnecessary, because the most pressing needs are clear. They’re the ones that are right in front of me. And my kids will let me know when things aren’t enough or they’re bored, or they’re needing something different.

For example, Oliver will say, “When’s the next time we’re going over to my friend’s house?” Or Maya will say, “I feel like we’re not going to enough places.” Or I will ask, “Would you be interested in going to the homeschool park day this week?” We just check in about what their social needs are and figure out the best way to meet those.

And I bet it could be hard to imagine what it could look like while your child is still a toddler. But online gaming with friends has been such a powerful way to meet a lot of our social needs, mine included, because the kids are free to jump in more often when they need more interaction and then to pull back when they need more quiet time or solitary time. And it has just been so helpful. I mean, we’ve had some months-long phases of, I don’t need to be around friends at all. And then when they want it, they can jump back into that world and it’s just worked so well for us.

And it can also be helpful to remember that you yourself don’t have to be the one who solves all of the problems and meets all of the needs by yourself. Solutions can come from all kinds of places, like play dates and day trips with other family members and friends. Maybe your child will become very interested in a certain activity like drama or martial arts that has kind of a built-in social circle for interaction. So, there’s plenty of time to see how it plays out and what her needs and interests will be.

And I guess I would also add that socializing with a lot of people and being out exploring the world are two separate things and people will have differing needs and desires for each of those things. I think the bottom line for me is, if I’m listening to my kids’ needs and bringing that yes energy, figuring out ways to meet those needs, then we’re good. And their lives are not going to be nearly as full of people and activities as mine was when I was their age, but what we are doing is more aligned with their personalities and how they want to spend their time. I didn’t have that option when I was growing up to find environments that fit with my personality. And so, I think we’re lucky in that way. Pam?

PAM: Oh, I love that so much, Erika. Thank you. And yes, I do appreciate your question so much, Jessie. I love the opportunity to dive into this more, because first, when I talk about interacting with the world, when I was writing that, for me, it means so much more than physical, in-person engagement.

In my mind, inhibiting their exploration of the world might look like filtering or blocking their access to information or not actively helping them as they seek out information or experiences they’re curious about.

Just like Erika was saying, there are so many possibilities to do that, but when we’re not open to that, open and curious and helping them do that, that’s more what I was talking about for not interacting with the world. It was a more esoteric definition of world, rather than physical, face-to-face exploration, because none of that is literally dependent on leaving the house, right?

For me, keeping their world small is definitely a separate thing from exploring and supporting all the ways and the frequency in which each person in the family wants to be out in public and interacting with other people, socializing. And that’s the other piece that you’ll find, as Erika was mentioning, as well. Everybody’s needs are taken into account. The family example Erika shared where the mom’s more of an introvert and child’s more of an extrovert, we can work with that. We can figure things out. We aren’t the sole responsible person for this. There are so many ways that we can pull things in. So, it’s really fun to get creative at that point.

And yes, my family includes both strong introverts and all sorts of neurodivergence, and it was so worth giving everyone the space to explore what that looks like for them and also, how the experience of that can change over time. You know, like you were saying, Erika, for months, it’s like, this is all I need, you know? And then it’s like, okay, I’m ready for a little bit more or a little bit more of this, or less of this, etc.

And, again, how we can stretch for exciting things. Sometimes we are happy to jump out of our comfort zone for bit or push on the edges of it. Because I found it was much easier for me to stretch when it was in service of something that one of my kids was super interested in doing. And that was because I could focus on their joy. I didn’t need to be seeing all the other things that might be overwhelming. I could focus on that piece. And then, we could also build in the recovery time and the relaxed time afterwards. And again, it was different depending on the child. It was different depending on the activity, where they were in the seasons of things. But that level of self-awareness is just so valuable for everyone, adults and kids alike.

When we had that or were able to pick up some of it along the way, we could bring that to the table as we figured out plans, figured out ways to move through things that worked for everyone. So, in that way, I feel like unschooling is an absolutely wonderful lifestyle for introverted and neurodivergent families, because each person is celebrated for who they are, rather than trying to change them to fit into this more conventional box.

So, I did want to mention there are a few podcast episodes where we dive into unschooling and neurodivergence that I think you’ll enjoy checking out. Episodes 120, 221 and 246. And we’ll put the links in the show notes. Anna?

ANNA: Okay. So, obviously you guys hit a lot of the points that that brought up to me, as soon as I was reading it, and I definitely identify with the question in terms of being an introvert. And it’s not really easy for me to reach out to strangers. I don’t love big, loud, crowded environments. But what I found was it was so much easier to do those things in small doses when I was facilitating my children, like you said, Pam. When you’re seeing your child light up about something, it’s the best. So, it really just makes it so much easier.

And there’s a connection that we have with our children, and that connection helps us find the ways to meet each other’s needs, even when it involves stretching our comfort zones a bit. I think the understanding that we had of each other just helped it flow, because we knew we’d figure it out. So, we could have this, okay, hmm, how are we going to do this? This part feels hard, this doesn’t. We want to do this. They just had a trust in me and I had a trust that they would also hear me and my concerns and how I was feeling about it.

And the piece, I think maybe you both mentioned it, but remembering that I don’t have to meet all the needs, as well, that helped me ground into, okay, there’s other resources available to help meet these needs. And even if it wasn’t something that David could do, maybe it’s a grandparent or a friend or someone else. And so, just being open, I found that those opportunities arose for them to be involved in all kinds of ways that I could not have predicted ahead of time.

And in terms of the school kindergarten, preschool thing that you were talking about, I really don’t believe that toddlers need to be with other toddlers, especially in a classroom environment, because there’s really not enough facilitation and it really isn’t an interest for the toddler. Toddlers aren’t interested in that. Their interest is to explore. And at that age, you’ll see a lot of parallel play and also a lot of upset, because toddlers are not so sure.

I think children want to be with their parents and learning about the world around them. And it sounds like you’re already doing that, Jessie. You all are already exploring the world. And I love Pam’s point about that quote was not about necessarily physically exploring the world. I think it was just shining a light on, we can limit our children in a lot of ways, and that limiting often happens at at home, not because of home, but because of not sharing certain resources or devaluing certain ways they want to explore things. And so, yeah, just open up that idea of what we’re talking about when we say exploring the world, because you’ll find that you just learn and grow together.

And I definitely wouldn’t be borrowing trouble about years down the road, because I truly believe and have seen, if we focus on the connection and the relationships, we’re in the best place to solve all the problems that life throws at us. And so, I just would look at your child. Are they happy? Are they enjoying life? Are they asking for something else? Are you both enjoying this time together? Things change really quickly and at each point you can pivot, make adjustments. That connection will be what helps you kind of tune in to who they are and what would help them do the things that they’re interested in.

PAM: Yeah.

ERIKA: That reminded me, too, about how it’s not a forever decision. Any decision isn’t a forever decision. So, there’s no reason right now to decide whether unschooling will work forever or not. It’s not even important to think of that.

PAM: That’s a really good point, too. We don’t need to decide now for forever. And I really liked your point, Anna, when you’re mentioning like how things will bubble up, possibilities will bubble up and that happens more when we are in that open and curious space, rather than in that smaller space where we’re not scanning, not noticing the things. And it’s not that we need to be in that space all the time, but if our child is curious about something and we’re not quite sure how we might meet that, we find so many possibilities when we just pay attention and not literally have to leave the house to be paying attention to it.

But I remember there were seasons where, when the local paper showed up, I was reading that, or I was going online just to see some things that were around us. Or if they had an interest in something, I would do some research on my own and I could find maybe a video that I could show them or a show or we’d go to the library and get some books. There are just so many possibilities.

And just being with them. I love the point of being with them and being in the moment right now, because this is what we can help with. And when you’re in the moment with them and noticing times when they’re, I don’t know, the word “bored” comes to mind, but there’s a whole conversation around that. What it does is, we can help them in those moments. We can work together. It’s not even so much us helping them as in, we have to come up with a solution. “Okay, you’re bored. Here you go, do this thing.” It’s conversations. It’s sitting with that. How are they feeling? Did they want to try something new? At those times, maybe what they want is comfort things. A show that they are very familiar with, when they’re feeling at odds and not sure what they want to do next.

There are just so many different ways to go, but when we can be with them in the moment, we can learn so much about them. We can help them move through that moment. And when you’re doing that, there’s so much less chance that you’re going to be blindsided by something coming up. “Oh my gosh! Not going to school was just a horrible choice, because their whole world was too small!” It is much more of a mindset, much more of a way of engaging with your child and just helping them pursue and enjoy the things that they’re interested in.

ANNA: Right. What that really brought to mind for me was, when we get into this thought process of way down the road, we’re so out of the moment that we really are missing the cues. We really are missing what’s happening. And so, once you get a little bit more time under your belt with your child, you’ll see that, as you stay connected, it’s this gradual growth. You’re gradually growing together, you’re learning more about each other and how you work well together and what works for how long and those type of things.

And so, then it just naturally unfolds and grows. But it’s like, if you jump way ahead, you’re just thinking, I can’t do this. But it really pulls you out of where the actual learning is about each other, which is in that moment, because that’s all that we have. And so, just watch for that. Like, “Hey, I’m getting way ahead of myself. I’m really sitting in my head and disconnecting from my child.”

Because, as we always say, we’ve said on the podcast so many times, when you start feeling that, just lean back in, lean back into the child in front of you, and then you see like, oh yeah, we’re doing great. We’re having a great time. Look at all that they’ve learned in the short two years that they’ve been on the earth.

ERIKA: Right. And when you’re thinking so far ahead, I feel like the only way to really do that is to be thinking of this kind of generic person who’s going to require these different things. Like a teenager is going to have this many friends and will have learned these things and gone to these places, or whatever it is. And so, that really is not about the child at all and the individual. And so, focusing more on the excitement of learning who this person is and how cool that is.

Everyone is so different, and so, school doesn’t make us think that everyone is so different. And I think that’s kind of a mindset shift to really realize how different every person is. And so, when you have this very young child in front of you who’s kind of just starting life, how fun and exciting is it to look at them and think, each thing that we do, I’m going to learn, Oh, they like that! They don’t like that. Ooh, this is really exciting for them! Who knew that they were going to be interested in that? And then that’s where life just gets more and more fun.

PAM: So much more fun! There was one little thing also that bubbled up for me, as you were mentioning leaning into your child, Anna, there will be seasons moving forward where the question does come up. Am I doing enough? This is what this feels like now as we dive into the question. And so, not to be afraid of that question, not to take that question as judgment. It’s like, oh, I’m failing. I’m failing unschooling. I’m failing parenting. Am I doing enough for them? But to use that as a reminder. For me, that was often a reminder that, oh, I’ve kind of drifted away. I’ve kind of disconnected a little bit, because I don’t have this hands-on experience and connection that is always telling me I’m doing enough when I’m helping them do the things that they are interested in doing. That’s just such a valuable question, because people can use that as, as such a judgment and beat themselves up over time, “I’m so worried about this,” but when you can use it as a cue, oh, you know what? Am I? Let’s go see! Let’s go talk to the kids!

ANNA: Let’s go see! Right. Let’s go see! And I love your point too, Erika, about learning about this child, because I think we do often hold this generic child in our mind, and it’s from our own experience or from how we are or from what we’ve seen on TV or whatever the thing might be.

But when you really lean in, I mean, these kids are so unique. I guarantee this child at two has strong preferences and things that really light them up and things that they just want to keep following, whether it’s trains or dogs or whatever the thing might be. And so, just really being open about that and just getting excited about it, I think just really leads the way.

And, like you said, Pam, then when those questions come up, you have, first of all, a background of connection and then you can go, okay, you know what? I do want to just lean in and see where are we now and what are they interested in now and how can I facilitate that now? And so, I love just all of that thinking, because the questions are going to come up. They just do.

PAM: They do. They really just do. And when we can not take those on as weight, but to take them on with curiosity, it leads us in so many super cool places.

Thank you so much to both of you for joining me today. I super appreciate it. I very much appreciate your question, Jessie. That was lots of fun to dig into.

If anyone hasn’t read Free to Learn yet, there will be links in the show notes or just go to books2read.com/freetolearn and you can pick it from your favorite online stores. And thank you so much, everyone. We’ll talk to you soon. Bye.


ANNA: Bye bye.