unschooling is learning by playing, and it really and truly works

Not having internet for a month got me thinking about how much of my and my kid’s lives are organized around fun, that is, our entertainment.  I feel guilty, thinking of all the people in the world who work sweatshop jobs for most of their waking hours, when we…play.  All day.  It’s amazing, really.  Games, contacting friends (texting, FaceTime, email), books, movies, tv, music, audiobooks, looking up an endless list of things up, etc.  We are so blessed.

I mentioned this to SuperHubby who generously supports the kids an I in our rock ‘n roll lives.  “We pursue fun like it’s our job.  Education from entertainment.”

“Edutainment?” he said.

No.  Edutainment is when you want someone to learn something you’ve selected for them, and so you’re trying to make it fun,  to get them to stick with you through your message.  It’s manipulative, really.  No, I’m talking about the opposite—when you’re having fun, you learn stuff, whether you notice it or not.  Learning happens automatically when you’re enjoying yourself.

People have no problem with this idea with babies.  Babies learn by playing, it’s a truism.  But as kids get older, gradually playing isn’t seen as good enough anymore.  You’re supposed to switch over to ‘work’ and ‘get serious’ about your studies.  I honestly believe this is a bunch of crap.

In North Carolina you have to test your homeschooled kid once a year with a state-approved test and I used to hate this because it seemed like whatever number you get, it messes you up.  If your kid scores high, you think differently about your kid and about what you’re doing for your homeschooling, than if your kid scores low.  And either way you’re looking at a number instead of at your kid.

But lately, I’ve noticed a nice side effect of the test.  So far, Sophie and Luc test right at grade level and I’ve found that gives us and our unschooling lifestyle a certain bulletproofing.  When people gape at me incredulously “you don’t teach reading at all?” or, “what about math???”  I can say, “we don’t do any of that stuff and the kids are exactly where they are supposed to be [according to some arbitrary, State chosen plan, which I could give a shit about, but still, it’s a standard most people buy into].

Take away point: at least at the elementary school levels, you really don’t need to do all that stuff they do in school in order to learn school stuff.  The kids get it through living rich interesting lives in a rich interesting environment. They get it through the air.  That’s right, I’m saying that, at this level, kids learn reading and math and history without any effort at all.

Reading sidebar: Sophie is currently reading Wonderstruck, by the author of The Invention of Hugo Cabaret (both amazing books).  The first books she ever pursued on her own and read through was all twenty-seven (27!) volumes of Fullmetal Alchemist, last year, a super complex, interesting, funny, morally challenging manga series.  Reading Wonderstruck or anything else, for a ten year old is not so special—except it might be surprising to some, given that Sophie has never had any reading instruction.  Well, she watched a few episodes of Sesame Street when she was little, and has had me reading or spelling for her anything she has ever asked me to read or spell (books, game text, movie subtitles, texting with friends, etc etc), since she was born.  But that’s it.  She got to reading all on her own, with no apparent effort.  Her brain was ready and boom, it happened.

“It’s so enjoyable to just disappear into a book for a while,” she said to me a few days ago about Wonderstruck.   I played it cool, but, as a reader and a writer who hopes to share my love of books with her, I was jumping up and down, cheering.  “I totally agree,” I said.  And I do.

Which made me think of this homeschooling curriculum I’ve seen out there called “Teach your child to read in 100 lessons,” and I can’t help but think, man, what a waste of time!  You guys could be partying instead and the reading will still happen when the kid is ready and has something they want to read.  Like Fullmetal Alchemist for Sophie.  When she started with Volume 1, it took her a week to plow through one.  By Volume 27, she flew through one in an hour, like a carousel picking up speed as she went.

What if there is no age-determined line where learning is supposed to switch over from playing to hard and boring?

I’ve seen my kids hunker down and focus like CRAZY to learn something they’re interested in.  This from kids who can, for example, watch as much tv as they want, no limits from me, and who rarely turn it on.  I say this in case some reader might think “playing all day” doesn’t include, at times, intense concentration, goals, focus, and drive.

Concentration, work, and drive are really, really FUN when they are in the service of your own goals.  Ever seen a baby struggle and focus to build a block tower, or poke a stick through a leaf, or pick a rainbow up with a pair of tongs (mine did all of these)?  That ability to work and focus doesn’t go away. Just don’t mess it up by sticking your own goals in there.

Bottomline: learning is easy when you’re having fun (and really hard when you’re not), but fun—playis hard when you’re being made to do something you aren’t interested in.  We all know that about fun, but forget.  Seriously, kids don’t need to work hard to get this stuff.  They just need to play all they want, however they want, in a rich, fun environment.

Okay, that’s enough soapbox from me today!

2 thoughts on “unschooling is learning by playing, and it really and truly works

  1. Wendy

    We just began home/un/deschooling this year and it is amazing to me how much I’ve mentally attached to the idea that the standard education is the “right” way. Even after I’ve railed against it, the worry that stays in my mind is unreal…the 2 am “oh god am I ruining my kids” is crippling. We do limit screen time, but I do need to remember that there is learning happening then as well. Thanks for your reminders:)
    Also, I found your blog ages ago when we were moving into a yurt with our (then) baby and 2 year old. We’re in a house now, but as a mindful (mostly) mama, yoga teacher and book lover, I always find something wonderful on your blog.

    1. maya Post author

      Hello Wendy, Nice to meet you! How cool, another yurt dweller. Thanks for the comment and I’m glad my blog has been of use to you! 🙂 If you want to challenge the whole concept of “screen time” I suggest this great piece by life-long unschooler (and now graduate student) Roxanne Sorooshian http://sandradodd.com/screentime/roxana . And when you’re worried at 2 in the morning, if it’s of any help, ponder that we have never limited tv, video games, ipads, pc, or ipod use and my kids are interesting, literate, people with a variety of interests and great senses of humor who test in the 90% percentiles on these stupid tests. 🙂


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