I just kissed my son, Eli, goodnight as he nestled into a graphic novel about the invention of vaccines. Not sure I myself could muster the interest in such a bedtime read, and our kids impress us often like this, their innocent curiousness. He didn’t choose the library book I grabbed randomly this week (we do about 30 new books a week) but the kid will read anything related to science, geography, and math. We are unschoolers, and this means that my children are growing up outside the convention of school, its routines, expectations, timelines, praises, tracks, assessments, curriculums, standardized pathways, and focus on producing results/work for others.  

We don’t do curriculum and I don’t fuss too much about so-called subject content. They get books related to topics they’re interested in, I’m interested in, their dad is interested in, and more often completely random shelf grabs. Our library is small and I’m sure they will read everything there in a matter of years. We simply read widely and daily.

Once I gave Eli a book about the ancient and powerful Kingdom of Benin in modern day Nigeria. I told him, “No one gave me any African history when I was growing up.” He said, “Well, we are going to Africa, right?” He stayed up late into the night, like many nights, reading. I share because I want people to consider that kind of unproductive interest, with no history report to write by Friday, just “What is this and is this compelling?” Reading exactly like a curious adult.

My children assume they will go everywhere eventually, and I’d like to keep it that way. I told him I was going to Teneriffe in the Canary Islands soon, and we looked at the atlas. “Oh my god, actually you are going to Africa!” He exclaimed.

“Well, the island belongs to Spain,” I said. “No, Mom, look it’s clearly closer to Africa.” 

That’s right, my love, let’s talk about that. And so a moment of investigation emerges which we as parents love to lean into: a tension to explore between what I’m asserting and what he sees. Here we go: history, colonialism, power, land, human diaspora, language, resources. This is unschooling, we all do this, it’s just a patchwork of experience, discussion, and a lot of mutual discovery between parent and child. 

We do see where a lack of school reads loud on my children. Because though they are kind and sweet, they are definitely eager to share and often interrupt, command adult attention, and are rough around the edges in terms of adult-child etiquette. Despite my correction, they tend to engage head on with adults without assuming a particular hierarchy. To them, they are just engaging: blurting out answers, free associations, questions, and personal anecdotes.

Recently, in the library Eli sidled up to a one year-old baby and his caretaker as the librarian read them both a story. The librarian was mid-sentence, holding the book aloft the baby’s head when Eli interrupted, 

“You’re all staring at a tessellation!” he declared into the void of cleared silence. The adults turned to look at my son, who was staring rather absently into the tessellation. 

“Sweetheart,” I whispered, “Don’t interrupt their story, you can listen, too.” 

The baby, now staring exclusively up at Eli while the librarian begins to read again, “A tessellation!” Eli interjects for the second time, “…is a pattern of interconnecting polygons unbroken by any gaps.” 

Yes, it occurs to me that at age eight he should know better than to interrupt complete strangers, but my kids don’t have this particular social courtesy refined day in and day out. I correct them often, but with kids living outside the social training ground of school, some of these things take a little longer to master.

And speaking of gaps! Sometimes I hear this concern against unschooling that children aren’t getting a “well-rounded” exposure to all the subjects otherwise. a.) What exactly is a subject? and b.) Why do we have to separate them? How come math and music are not one in the same if they are constructed with same mechanics? Or art and biology, aren’t they mutually necessary when explored? When you watch a child learn a new intangible concept, its understanding is the product of tangible manipulations, through the deployment of many other subjects: felt by the fingers of play, solidified by a crayon. We can all see that nothing is as it seems, and so the categorical nature of knowledge doesn’t seem to create a convenience to us at home, it’s more a complication, a feeling that we need to stay within the lines.

“I’m glad I learned the quadratic equation, even if I never used it in real-life!” some schoolies argue and I completely agree! I say reading about the quadratic equation is real life enough, the exposure is always as important as the mastery. As unschoolers, with a family led by engaged and curious adults, we expose widely and let the children choose their path through it. School and Unschool are aligned here, what is not aligned is in the production of work and results that supposedly prove that a bite of knowledge has been chewed and swallowed. To then grade, assess, praise, and collate minds accordingly, forever forward to success or less than, that is the only part that is not aligned. 

Have you watched a child complete a self-assigned project to its end result? Do you see the pride and self-satisfaction? The question and the answer begin with them, through their hands, but with their intrinsic play nature to repeatedly investigate, apply trial and error, which ends in either self-determined sense of doneness, or conversely a frustrating dissatisfaction, tiredness, or hunger, and isn’t that the real life of work, too…to know when it must stop and to listen to those cues, rather than to ignore them?

Content gaps don’t exist because knowledge is not an actual thing, but rather a construct to understand one aspect of human consciousness. Knowledge is an imagined frontier that we all sit along and expand with each life lived. And besides, there is the internet, which is also a handy arm of human consciousness and knowledge. 

And when the internet is not there, my son is always right up in the front in a group, with his hand raised, perhaps, perched to interrupt. He’s never had to listen to a lecture against his will. Like books, live expert-led presentations are potential to him, special unique experiences. Can you imagine not taking that for granted? 

This tessellation of days. Life, too, is a pattern of unbroken, interconnecting polygons lessons without gaps. 

Photos by Hannah Pierce-Carlson

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