I've been looking forward to writing this post for a long time, but I have so much to say I've had to put in a lot of thought to condensing it and making it simple. I have a tendency to digress, so I've divided this up into a 5 part series. Hopefully this wont be too long and hopefully I'll get to some other topics dealing with how we homeschool.
First I just want to point out the reason for turning a typical homeschooling plan into an unschooling plan. For some, we have to provide some sort of daily plan for our school boards, or have to do it for our own sanity, or have to do it to ensure our kids don't get "too far behind" before standardized tests.
So then why unschool? Why not just use the curriculum you have?
I really believe, especially for young children, that unschooling is the best method of teaching them. As my kids get older I fully expect that I will have them participate in more traditional schooling, perhaps become active in study groups, spend more time researching, although even then I will probably be more open ended with it than most people.
To look at why unschooling works, we really have to start at infancy. The pre-school years are full of intense learning for children, but almost none of it is directly imposed by adults. Think of the talents an infant will develop over the next few years. She will learn to sit up, walk, talk, use utensils, dress herself, manipulate objects, learn about object permanence, and on and on. Is there some kind of instinctual driving force that makes children across the board learn these things? Nope. It is self motivation to participate in their world. That's why an emotionally and physically absent parent can create such havoc on a child's developmental process. Without witnessing others demonstrating activities, children don't develop motor skills, the ability to talk, or even control their bladders.
Toddlers are known to be so ornery specifically because their desire to learn is so intense. A two year old having a meltdown because they aren't allowed to pull the boiling pot of water all over themselves is not an unusual sight. "What's wrong with you child! You'll burn yourself!" But for a two year old, the desire to explore trumps every thing, even moms' and dads' wishes.
So why do we think that learning takes a hike when a child turns five? A desire to learn is still very present and very important in a five year old. Allowing them the freedom to experience their world is much more valuable than sitting them down to begin working on abstract thought. This is becoming more and more clear as we learn about the developmental processes that take place in infants and children. Piaget's pyramid of development is slowly being whittled away by neuroscience as we discover children are capable of advance thought at younger and younger ages. For example, babies as young as six months (and animals, including insects) have been found to understand basic math principles,even so far as to be able to do simple addition and subtraction. Of course, they are not able to use the abstract representational figures of number and symbols. The experimenters would cover an object with a blanket, add another object under the same blanket, and lift the blanket to reveal....six objects! The babies showed clear signs of confusion and distress. They did not when the blanket was lifted to reveal 2 objects, the correct amount based on the information they received. The babies were not saying, "Hey! 2 plus 2 isn't 6!" But they still understood that too many objects were there and could not understand how this principle of the world could be broken.
Knowing what we do about children's development then, schooling in the early years shouldn't focus on the more "adult" pursuits of writing and math on paper, but allowing children to really ingrain and enforce those basic principles of the world that they are already aware of.
For example, the other day my daughter took her box of science supplies, put on a pair of goggles, grabbed a pair of tweezers and a magnifying glass, and sat on our hill pulling apart pinecones. She'd pull individual seeds off, inspect them with the magnifying glass, and toss them aside. When only the inside stem was left, she rubbed the small feathers on various body parts, and tossed it. She did this with pinecone after pinecone.
While she was doing this I was busy repressing two urges: To do the parent thing and scold her for "playing" with her expensive school things, and to do the teacher thing and join her while explaining what the different parts are, maybe looking something up on the computer, watching a Nature clip on pinetrees, and doing a project.
Instead I did nothing. I realized that if I were to do the parent or the teacher thing her interest level would plummet to zero. Adults are REALLY good at spoiling children's fun. Instead I allowed her interest and engagement to play itself out. That day, she did not "learn" in the traditional sense anything about pinecones. But she did have a valuable experience with pinecones. Some day she will be reading a book or watching a program or listening to a conversation or be sitting in on a college lecture, and the subject of seeds will come up. Instead of hearing an impermanent bit of information she has to memorize, she will hear the words that confirm what she already knows about the world.
Allowing children to experience on their own terms does not force them to ingest intangible information but instead sets them up for information to be a confirmation of what they already know.
This is why great literature or poems can be so breathtaking. You read them and you say, "Yes, yes, Yes! I know! I have felt that way but never could express it!" (want to read a great explanation for the need for these kinds of experiences, read John Stuart Mill).
To put it another way, early education gives you the experiences which you will learn the words for later in life. This has been shown many times to be how we all learn, or at least learn things in a significant way. Think again to the little baby. Long before they are able to say the word "apple" they experience an apple, tasting it, playing with it, understanding the nature of an apple. Without the apple for reference, what would the word mean to them? Nothing. And it would not be part of their vocabulary, just as lychee isn't a part of my children's vocabulary, because they've never seen one. The same thing is true for letters and numbers. Any child can memorize these but any child psychologist will tell you they mean nothing to them because until age 5 or so children aren't able to connect the ideas of abstract representational figures with actual numerical numbers. They can memorize the names of number, and can understand basic quantities, but they are not capable of connecting the two.
This loosely follows the ideas of the trivium. You begin with grammar, the basic understandings of the world, founded on the senses. It is followed with logic and later rhetoric. Modern education is way too focused on bringing logic and rhetoric into a young child's world. That's really the foundational idea of Common Core. However, it flies in the face of modern research that shows things like reading early do not predict a better comprehension of language in high school. You know what does? Deferring reading until the ages of 8-11, so children are allowed to develop a better understanding of verbal communication. As much as we like to try, often the ancients were much smarter about things like education than we are today.
Reading and Math seem to be two of the biggest hang ups for parents wanting to unschool or even homeschool. We seem to think that unless our children are actively taught these things, they wont learn them. Most children who grow up in lower class, middle class, or upper class homes will learn these things though, for the same reason that they learned how to dress themselves or turn on the TV when they were toddlers. Reading, writing, and math are so important to our modern society, and so commonplace, that it would be harder for them to NOT learn how to do it, than it is for them to learn it. This is not necessarily true though in very lower income families, the ones that do not have access to books, computers, or hear proper grammar. Schools were started as a place where children who commonly didn't have access to these kinds of things would, and to learn about them. In our modern world though, not only has the average home caught up with the kinds of resources schools have, they have often surpassed them. Schools are really struggling to catch up with the modern influx of information, printed media, and complex computational math that is necessary for people to have in our modern society.
So don't worry if your child isn't a good reader by age 6, 7, 8, 9, and on. The main reason schools focus so intently on young reading isn't because it's necessary to their development, it's necessary to a teacher's ability to manage 20-30 children at once. A third grader has to be a good reader because otherwise they would fall behind on their worksheets and independent reading.
Read how we accomplish our unschooling homeschooling here.