Exploring Unschooling

Exploring Unschooling

EU343: Bringing It Home: Navigating Lessons

March 02, 2023

This week on the podcast, we’re diving into another Bringing It Home episode. We’re looking deeper at our last Unschooling “Rules” topic, that unschoolers don’t use curriculum, and exploring what it can look like to navigate lessons and adult-led activities with our unschooling families.

Unsurprisingly, there is no one right approach. It’s so much about seeing through our children’s eyes and making choices that feel good to them. A world of possibilities exists when we are open and curious!

We hope you find our conversation helpful on your unschooling journey!

Watch the video of our conversation on YouTube.

Follow @exploringunschooling on Instagram.

Follow @pamlaricchia on Instagram, Facebook, and check out her website for lots more info about exploring unschooling and decoding the unschooling journey.

Follow @helloerikaellis on Instagram.

Sign up to our mailing list to receive The Living Joyfully Dispatch, our biweekly email newsletter, and get a free copy of Pam’s intro to unschooling ebook, What is Unschooling?

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

Become a patron of Pam’s work for as little a dollar a month (in a wide variety of currencies) and help keep the podcast archive 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 A Typical Unschooling Day, and we’re exploring it through the lenses of perspective and engagement.

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. Listen to The Living Joyfully Podcast here, or find it in your your favorite podcast player.


PAM: Welcome! I’m Pam Laricchia from LivingJoyfully.ca, and today I’m here with Anna Brown and Erika Ellis. Hi to you both!

ANNA: Hello!


PAM: In our last Unschooling “Rules” episode, episode 341, we talked about the idea that unschoolers don’t use curriculum. And yes, it can definitely be very helpful when you’re starting out unschooling to steer away from curriculum and organized adult-led activities, because when we first come to unschooling, our vision of how learning works is so often tightly wrapped up in what it looks like in school. So, staying away from that environment for a while encourages us to explore the many other ways that learning so beautifully happens.

And eventually, we realize that we don’t need a curriculum or a more structured, adult-led environment to inspire learning, because learning is always happening, at which point the need to actively look for learning begins to fade. And instead we concentrate on cultivating what we’ve discovered lies underneath, connected and trusting relationships, and supporting them in following their interests, however they want to explore them. That’s the solid foundation of unschooling.

So, if you haven’t yet listened to that episode, it’s a great lead in to this one. So, I encourage you to listen to it and then come back here.

Okay, so with this follow up Bringing it Home conversation, we want to talk about an aspect that comes up pretty regularly in unschoolers lives and that’s navigating lessons or more broadly, adult-led activities as an unschooling family. So, maybe it’s music lessons or dance or karate or so many, many, many other possibilities. It’s one thing to get comfortable with unschooling in your own home, but it can be another whole kettle of fish to bring that learning mindset with you out into the world.

And this is a topic I’m pretty passionate about, so I have three aspects I want to mention, but then I’ll turn it over, I promise. Before we dive into that, just a quick reminder, something we talked about in the “Rules” episode, which is that lessons or organized activities aren’t the only way to pursue an interest. And they aren’t objectively better than the other ways. They’re just a different way. But depending on the child, they might be a great way for them to explore their interests.

Okay, so the first aspect I want to touch on is finding a good match between the activity and the interested child. The more conventional response when a child asks to join an activity or take lessons, assuming the parents agree, is for a parent to find the closest location and sign them up. End of story.

From there, the child is expected to do the work to fit into the environment. Now, for unschooling parents, our foremost focus is on supporting our children’s learning. So, instead of expecting our children to adapt, we are willing to do the work to search out an environment that meshes well with how our children like to learn. Understanding that the atmosphere surrounding many activities is dictated by the individual adults who run them, we look for a good fit between the group’s atmosphere and the child’s personality and goals.

So, let’s just take karate as a quick example. Some dojos focus on attendance and progress their students through the belts based on the time invested. Some focus on skill development and progress their students based on proficiency displayed. Some dojos insist their students compete in certain tournaments. Some avoid tournaments altogether and so on. The big question is, what are your child’s goals? That is a great conversation to have with them as you’re approaching an activity.

And then on top of the activity itself, there’s also the teaching methods and personalities of the teachers or coaches. Do they demand obedience and cultivate a strict hierarchical environment? Do they encourage questions and cultivate a supportive atmosphere? Are they somewhere in between there? The knowledge and skills of the instructors being relatively equal, there is still a wide range of possible learning environments. Some your child may fit into like a glove, while others may turn them off the activity itself for years to come.

So, if your goal is to help them explore their interest, your best bet is to help them find the studio, dojo, group, league, or teacher that is a good match for their personality. Instead of choosing a location by geography and expecting your child to conform, take the time to explore the options, including those that may be a bit further afield, and try to find one that is a great fit for your particular child.

Okay, so the second aspect is getting ready to leave for the activity. Participating in an activity likely means a fixed time for lessons or practice or games. And this can be challenging, especially for younger children who may have a harder time transitioning to leave if they get caught up in doing something at home. And on top of that, it can also be challenging for newer unschooling parents, because they may feel like they are coercing their child to leave. What do they do if their child says they don’t want to go this week?

So, if going to an activity is becoming a struggle, take a moment to look at how you’re setting it up. If you find yourself saying something like, “It’s Wednesday. Your karate class is today. Are you going to go this week?” Just take a moment to rethink that. By asking your child each week whether they want to go to class, you’re basically asking them to revisit their decision each time. And that is a lot of work, especially for younger children.

So, in my experience, it’s easier to assume your child wants to go, because they wanted to sign up in the first place, and to do your best to help them get there. Make it as painless as possible for them.

“Hey, your karate class is today. I have your gi clean and I put your bo by the front door. We’ll get changed and leave right after dinner.” By bringing it up during the day, you have time for conversations without the added pressure of trying to get out the door. And by making sure all the supporting things are in place so that your child can just go to the activity, clean outfits or uniforms, working and available equipment, transportation and timing, all those supporting things, then they can focus on the activity itself.

Are they enjoying it? Because that’s the real question, which then leads to the third aspect I want to mention, and that is choosing to quit. When our children express an interest in an activity, it can be easy for us parents to get all caught up in the idea that, ooh, maybe they’ll grow up to do this for a living. We want to encourage them to continue.

Sometimes we’re afraid that if they quit, they’ll get behind and the opportunity to develop their interest into a career will be lost and they’re eight years old. There are a couple of things to consider here. First, if it’s not catching their interest so much that they are excitedly dedicating many hours to it on their own, then the chances of a professional career are pretty slim. Certainly, the chances of enjoying a professional career are slim. And second, quitting is not a forever decision.

When you’re doing things for enjoyment, there is no “behind.” There is just where you are. At the dojo, there are white belts of all ages. There are adult beginner ballet classes. There are adult recreational hockey leagues. And there are public swimming times where people of all ages and abilities can enjoy the water.

Or maybe we’re worried that our children wanting to quit means they will always give up when things get challenging. First off, challenges that aren’t motivating and inspiring for your child are probably not the right kinds of challenges for them, and that is great to know. But also, the choices they make today don’t define all the choices they will make in the future. The choices they make today are helping them gain experience with making choices. Over the years, they will gain lots of experience with wanting to try something, with choosing ways to try it out, and with seeing how well those paths meet their goals.

They will discover things they enjoy, things they don’t, and get a better feel for the clues that help them decide when they want to step up their game and when they want to quit. And even after they choose to quit something, for now at least, they’re still learning. How does that choice feel? Do they miss the activity? How much do they miss it? What do they miss about it? What are they doing with the time that quitting freed up? Are they enjoying that more than the activity? Less? So, so much learning.

Okay. Okay. I know I went on for a bit, but I just love how we can bring our unschooling approach to conventional lessons and activities in ways that continue to actively support our children’s learning without needing to revert to control over the way they choose to participate.

So, Anna, any thoughts? 

ANNA: Oh my goodness. I love all of your insights and I think taking that time to find the best environment for your particular child really is so critical. And it can be challenging, because most classes or instructors are geared towards school children, and they tend to kind of cater to the parents versus the children.

And I remember when my youngest wanted to take piano lessons, it was so interesting to explain to the teacher that this was her experience. She wanted to be there and she was the customer. I wasn’t going to be forcing practicing, and I didn’t need him to be doing things for my benefit. And that was a very new experience for him. And it took a bit of adjustment, but we got there and she had this great experience. So, it was worth that kind of time and investment and that conversation at the beginning.

And we also ran into classes or activities that just didn’t dig deep enough and I think it’s one of the big reasons we ended up avoiding so many of these type of things. Both my girls enjoyed nature and animals and our life had a lot of experience with both, and I remember attending this nature event with a park ranger. We thought it was going to be so amazing, talking about snakes. And Afton had to correct half of what he said and it ended up just being this lecture where Afton’s correcting him and he’s saying things and I was just like, ah! Because we were getting far more hands-on and deep diving just in our backyard.

So, that really led me to realize that things that are geared towards adults but that allowed children was actually a better fit for us. So, for example, my youngest was having a deep dive into rocks and a recreation class geared at children would have been really boring for her and way below her interest level, because she was really deep diving in pursuing this. But attending the Gem and Mineral Club downtown, which is a club for adults, was perfect.

First of all, they loved having her there. And they were talking at a level that gave her new information, which she was really excited about, and they were so happy to answer her questions and share their love of the subject. And in this case, gave her a lot of new rock specimens that she just was over the moon about.

And I think it’s just so wild to see how most things designed for children just really dumb it down. Sometimes it feels like they’re trying to make it as boring and painful as possible, which I hope is not the intent, but I did watch for it, because I really wanted to facilitate their curiosity, and not have it squashed by arbitrary waiting and crowd control.

And as we mentioned last time, I always wanted to look at my motivation. Were we pursuing an outside adult-led class to facilitate their journey or because it looked better to the grandparents or checked an arbitrary box for me? And so, really honing in on what we wanted out of the experience and what things offered us the best path for that exploration and my child’s goals, like you were talking about, Pam, was so helpful in deciding what things we wanted to try.

And so, I don’t know. I learned so much about this whole world of classes from a whole different lens, because I went to school straight through and just did all those things. But what I love about what you said, Pam, is again, it’s just, take that time to really find something that works for your child and maybe scratch beneath the surface of what might normally pop up if you Google horseback riding lessons or whatever the thing might be.

So, anyway, lots to think about. But Erika, how about you?

ERIKA: Oh my gosh. I was laughing about that. I’ve had that same thought, like, are they trying to make this as boring and painful as possible? And I’m sure that’s not the case, but it is true that most people are approaching activities for children from a much different perspective than I would be. And in my area, most extracurricular activities are really marketed with language about school readiness, regardless of what the activity is. It could be ballet or karate or whatever, they will market it with what types of school skills are going to be included in these lessons.

And I’ve watched two- and three-year-olds at soccer classes at the park where it’s mostly about waiting your turn. And I totally get that. Practicing waiting your turn could be helpful if you’re going to use that skill in school. But it’s really boring for these little tiny kids. And I think now, there’s the risk of them thinking that that’s what soccer is, that soccer is boring, you know?

And so, what I love about approaching adult-led activities from an unschooling perspective is that we know there’s not just one way or one path to learn about an interest. There’s no right way to approach it. And there’s no requirement of how deep they dive or how much they achieve. It can all be so individually tailored, and that means we can also tailor our choices to each child’s individual personality.

And I know some children and some adults experience a lot of anxiety if they feel they’re being controlled or expected to do something in a certain way. And so, overly-directed activities just might not feel good to them. And that’s a big part of why my kids have not been interested in signing up for adult-led classes generally. They don’t like to be directed in that way.

But even given that, we have so many options available to us. We could do open gym sessions at the play gym instead of classes. We can do YouTube tutorials instead of taking a class with a teacher, learning by doing, learning from friends, observing an adult doing a class from a distance and just watching what it’s like for the kids in the class. We’ve done all of these things and they’re all valid options and we can learn in so many different ways. It just feels like we have this whole world of possibilities at our disposal if we’re not narrowing it down to, there’s one way.

And if we can’t find a good fit, we could even create what we’re looking for ourselves. Homeschoolers and unschoolers in my community are always putting together lower-pressure alternatives to the typical lessons and getting small groups together to participate. And so, if you can’t find what works for your child, it’s worth seeing if there’s a way to think outside the box to create something new. Just communicating what you’re looking for, what you’re wanting and needing to the dojo, to the instructor, or to the studio, that might give them the opportunity to really meet those wants and needs.

You know, saying, “We don’t want to require our kids to practice. We don’t want them to be taking home homework,” or, “We don’t need for you to be trying to impress us.” And some people in the community get so excited to be able to do it in a different way that’s not so school-skills-focused and we really just have to ask for what we want.

I also had a thought that this episode is reminding me a little bit of the Not Bringing School Home idea that was shared on the Living Joyfully Podcast recently. Like you were mentioning with that piano teacher, Anna, we don’t have to enforce practicing or homework or add any pressure to the activity just because that’s what other people are doing. We don’t have to add that urgency of progressing at a certain speed or meeting a certain bar.

Our children can determine for themselves the goals that they would like to meet. And with some activities and for some children, that will be this full-immersion, quick progress, working at it like it’s their full-time job. And for others it’s just a fun interest and they take their time and do what feels good. So, there’s not a right and a wrong about exploring our interests. And if we notice we’re looking towards a set outcome or feeling this external pressure or feeling like we’re on a certain timeline, that could just be a clue to step back a bit.

And finally, I just wanted to say, as an adult who is a scanner and I’m interested in doing all the different things, it’s been important for me to be careful not to commit myself to activities that the kids might enjoy, but also they might not enjoy. And it’s definitely happened to us in the past where now, I have people expecting me to help lead a class or run a group, and my kids were just done with it or not interested in it, and it’s really just not a good feeling. And in those cases, we worked through by just trying our best to meet all of our needs.

But there have definitely been times where I’ve regretted committing to something for myself because I would’ve been better served by being more available for what my kids wanted to do instead. But that’s just one of those things, I think, where you live and you learn. But I just wanted to mention that, as well.

PAM: Yes, live and learn. It’s fascinating. We talk a lot about how much we learn about our kids, just giving them the space and the opportunity to just make choices, but also think about how much they’re learning about themselves, the things that they love, that they enjoy, but how they like to enjoy things, how they like to pursue things, all the different possibilities. You touched on a number of them Erika,  there and it is amazing. There are so many possibilities, so many different directions we can take when we’re curious about something.

I mean, the famous ballet example. I remember when Lissy was younger. “Do you really want lessons? Is lessons the thing you want to do or are you super happy to pick up a pair of ballet shoes?” You know what? You can go to a dance wear store and pick up tutus and shoes and tights and all that kind of stuff, and dance around in the living room, maybe watch YouTube videos. There’s so many ways you can play with something that is just as valid as showing up to the class.

And I think it was you that mentioned, Anna, is that class more about, okay, now I can tell people that she’s taking classes now? That is a feeling that can come up for us, certainly, in the beginning.

ANNA: We may not even recognize that. And the point that you made too, Pam, about, but are they going to push through challenges? I think that’s important to revisit, because what that’s a clue of is that I’m projecting out into the future really nothing that has to do with the class in front of me or the child in front of me.

And so, recognizing that, yes, when something matters to humans, we find a way. And so, if they’re not pushing through what you’re seeing as maybe a challenge with the class or something else, that’s really a good clue. And like you said, so much of what I wanted from these experiences for my girls was learning about themselves. How they wanted to take in information, what things sparked the interest, and I wanted them to be able to move on if it wasn’t. Because I’m also a scanner and I felt like I lost so many years being in school, doing what everyone else was telling me, that I was kind of excited they were going to have this time to really dive into these different things. So, always watching for those tapes in my head that might be projecting out and writing some story about the future that really has nothing to do with the child in front of me.

PAM: Yeah. And just one last thing to bring up again. You mentioned, Anna, the looking at activities geared for adults that might go to the depth, also the level of interest of the child. Because adults are choosing to go there. I mean, there’s oftentimes, too, where you go to rec activities and the kids are there because their parents signed them up. “I want you to take these lessons. You can have three activities a term and these are the best ones. School skills. These are going to get you the school skills that the teacher says you’re lacking.”

So, often the kids can be in activities that are geared to kids, they’ve got that lens on, that kids aren’t that capable, so we’re going to kind of dumb down the material to what grade level are they at? What words do they understand, etc. And then also the way they speak to them, the whole deal. And so, just opening up our view that it doesn’t have to be, “Okay, my child is 10. What is out there for 10 year olds?” No, what is out there for a person who loves these things a lot.

ANNA: Right. But I think, Erika, your point, you’ve said this before and so it stuck with me, this piece of, they are trying to teach these school skills. That’s why they’re doing it. Because, to me, I was just baffled by it. I’m like, why is this happening? Why are they making this so hard? Why are they making it not fun? Sit here. Don’t move. Line up here. Do this. But they’re selling it to parents as these school skills. And I’m like, oh, okay. These are not skills that I’m interested in.

ERIKA: Right. And that’s why it doesn’t make any sense, but it’s making me think of what a spectrum there is as far as how parents are approaching activities with children. Because I’ve heard plenty of parents say, “I want my kid to develop this. I’m going to put them into this activity.” And so, really, when you are doing those activities designed for children, there are plenty of children who have been just placed into that against their will, because of what the parents hope they’re going to be able to develop. And so, of course, in that atmosphere, you might feel that energy of, I don’t know, people don’t really seem to like this. It feels like they’re having to force the children to do these activities.

And so, I don’t know. I love, I guess, it’s like a lightness or a free feeling that we don’t have to buy into it. There’s not the one way, and so, we don’t have to just accept, well, I guess this is what soccer lessons are like. That’s just what it is. There are so many possibilities if we get open and curious about like, who could come help us? Who could do this in the way that would feel really fun for these kids?

ANNA: And so, right. And your point about just asking, because what I found with several people that had a specific interest that my girls were interested in, they loved not having to worry about those school things. They wanted to talk about the guitar or the art thing, or the whatever it was, from their passion perspective, so that that was a big piece of it.

But that piece that you were talking about with the kids there that didn’t want to be there. So, that, for my oldest, was a huge trigger, because she was there because she was super interested in the topic.

And so, this chattering over here, or this not focused because they didn’t want to be there, oh my gosh. She would get so upset about it, but I had to just tell her, I’m like, “Afton, they don’t want to be here. They’re just not interested in it as you are.” And so, then we would keep searching. But that’s the thing.

Bring some lightness to it. Know that there’s lots of options. Yeah. I just love that.

ERIKA: That’s where the adult groups would be a much better fit, in that case. Because all the adults are choosing to be there.

ANNA: Right, exactly. And super interested.

PAM: I love that. All right. Okay. This was so, so much fun. There are so many interesting aspects to consider when we’re approaching these kinds of activities from an unschooling perspective.

Thank you so much for the conversation and wishing everybody a lovely day. Bye.

ANNA: Yes! Take care.