I am currently home educating – or, more specifically, unschooling – my two youngest children, Ayla, aged 9, and Sylvia, aged 12. Cam, now 16, was unschooled up until high school.
Throughout the years, with children who have very different temperaments and learning styles, I have seen them set many goals for themselves and for their education. Some goals are large (“I want to learn how to read,” or, “I want to learn sign language”), some goals are medium (“I want to try stand-up paddleboarding,” or, “I want to crochet a hat”), some are small daily goals (“This afternoon, I want to pick wild blackberries and make scones with them”). All of their goals are intrinsically motivated, but they rely on my support for transportation, supplies and guidance. They have by and large succeeded in carrying out the plans they set for themselves. Sometimes they have not reached their goals, or they have shifted them as their priorities have changed, and sometimes failing at a goal has proved more educational than not.
I’m not generally a goal-oriented person. I value experiences, connection and wellbeing. However, I recognise that setting goals and attempting to achieve them is important for children as they learn new skills. There is power in a child stating, “I want to learn how to read,” and then, over time and with support, going about the process of doing so. That child is not only learning how to read, but also discovering the capacity for setting a goal and seeing it through to success. I have seen how empowering this is with both an early reader (reading competently by the age of 4) and a late reader with dyslexia (who now at age 12 reads aloud to her sister for fun). No one told them they couldn’t learn and no one told them they had to. The written word is such a huge part of how information and entertainment are spread that it is nearly impossible in a print-rich environment for a child not to set the goal of mastering reading.
Here are some of the goals that are currently in progress at our house: write and illustrate a picture book together (Ayla and Sylvia), tile the upstairs bathroom (me), build a sound-proof music-recording studio (my husband), start getting college credits while still in high school (Cam). We are at various stages in our goals. Sylvia and Ayla are in the early, excited stages of planning and starting their book together. They discuss characters and plots, what medium to use for illustration, how they might bind the pages together, and so on. My tiling project initially went wonky because of fast-drying grout, so my goal shifted to repairing some of my mistakes. That happens. My husband has most of his studio built, with some help from Cam, and his next goal is to start recording his original music. Cam has registered for dual-enrolment classes and is a determined scholar. As our children see us set goals, revise them, and keep trying, they have an example of perseverance in the face of challenges.
While I do have broad educational goals for my children, the specific large and small intentions that they set for themselves are both inspiring and meaningful, and will inevitably be beneficial in their journeys as lifelong learners. This does not mean that I consider the way that we unschool to be “child-led learning”. Their education is a partnership. Sometimes I take the lead in the interest of exposing them to new experiences. We go to plays, concerts, libraries, museums, parks, rivers, animal shelters, farms, cities. We explore ideas and we explore places. Sometimes I take the role of supporting their curiosity and motivation. Sometimes we decide together that a class, an online tutorial or a volunteer opportunity is the best way to learn a new thing. In this way we continue to thrive in our child-inspired, curiosity-driven, joy-seeking method of education.
Nikole Verde is a mama to three children. Along with her husband, they live on a small acreage in the middle of Wisconsin, with a dog, five cats, four chickens, and a goose named Jupiter. She shares photos and stories of their everyday life on Instagram as @verde.mama
This article was originally published in JUNO Autumn 2019, issue 63.