How can “Unschoolers” Plan Ahead?

Summer, for many homeschooling families, is the time to plan for the school year ahead. Tis the season for dog-eared and highlighted homeschool catalogs, used curriculum swaps, and agonizing decisions over which methods to use. It’s kind of fun actually.

But what should you do if you’re more of an unschooler – someone who doesn’t believe in coercing kids to learn stuff?  All those lovely curriculum plans, with daily to-do lists, learning objectives, and directions to read aloud don’t really work for you. But that doesn’t mean you can’t plan ahead. Unschooling doesn’t mean that everything has to be spontaneous. It just means that the child should be given the freedom to direct how, what, and when they learn.

We as parents help make that happen by providing our time, resources, experience, and attention. Some people might be fine with winging it everyday, but for the rest of us (kids included), it’s nice to have a little structure. It’s also nice to have time to get things ready. If your child really wants to take up rocketry, its not something you can just pull out of the closet the very day he mentions it. He needs to research what is involved and what equipment is needed beforehand.

So, don’t be afraid to plan ahead. Just because your child is in charge of their own learning doesn’t mean your days must wait on their whims. Of course, the process of planning will be different depending on the age of your kids, but here’s what I recommend:

For Younger Kids

Structure their days but let the year evolve with their interests. Younger children seem to benefit from a regular schedule, even if the blocks of time are understood to be free play. Set up times for meals, chores, reading aloud, outside time, free play, art (this is when the messy supplies come out), naps, games, errands, play dates, field trips, outside classes and anything else you normally do. Some of this time involves you, some of it doesn’t. Let them choose the books to read and games to play, but feel free to suggest something you think they will like. Their interests may swing wildly over the course of a year but you can accomodate them with trips to the library or making/borrowing materials as needed.

If you are really ambitious, you might consider making ahead some hands-on Montessori type materials to have ready for your kids to work with if they are interested. Kids are usually so eager to learn and try new things that they will gobble up whatever you give them. I’ve always thought that this would be a good project for a homeschool group: have each family make one or two quality Montessori type items, then everyone regularly swap materials.

The key with scheduling your days is to leave plenty of time for outdoors and free play. Don’t over-schedule outside activities or you’ll spend all your time in the car, and everyone gets grouchy.

For Older Kids

Help set goals for their year but let them structure their days. Once kids are old enough to start planning ahead (you’ll know when because they’ll start doing it), make a list together of all the things they would like to learn or do. Don’t judge or worry about how to do all of it in one year, just brainstorm. If they have trouble getting started, you can remind them of the things they are already interested in. You can even suggest things you think they will like. If there is a class at the Nature Center or upcoming exhibit at the Museum, throw it out there. If your child likes making things, let them peruse books of projects and put sticky notes on the things they want to make. Write down the books they want to read. If they don’t want to commit to anything or have only three items on the list, that’s OK.

Then, once you have the master list, you can either work with your child to prioritize and plan it out, or do it by yourself. In my experience, kids really aren’t interested in this level of planning and would just as soon have you do it. My caution here is DON’T OVERDO it. Just because they made the list doesn’t mean you can go crazy with it. It just means you can start researching and collecting the best books and materials within your budget, and block out times when you can go through items on your child’s list.

One of my sons wanted to make cheese from scratch when he was around 8 years old. I had no idea how to do this but found a cheese-making kit online, and set aside a day to do this with him. It wasn’t something he could have done alone because it required a huge pan of milk on the stove and keeping track of lots of steps. In fact, it wasn’t something I could have done alone, but together we had a great time.

The point is that making cheese was on my son’s list, but I had to plan ahead and purchase a few supplies to make it happen. You know best when you will have time to spend the whole day making cheese, or driving to the beach, or building a tree house. I usually started with a yearly grid of 6 boxes per page labeled with each month. I penciled in certain projects to go with the month that made the most sense. I tried to group things together, including books to read, making our own loose unit studies. Once the big things were on my yearly grid, I planned out more details a month or two in advance. This gave me time to find, borrow or buy things we would need.

As for structuring our days, I still had meals at the same time, and I spent the morning doing things with them, but after that it varied from day to day depending on what my kids were up to. Sometimes they needed my help, sometimes they didn’t. Some days we were gone all day on a field trip or other outside activities.

For Teens

Teens have to start looking even farther into the future, particularly if they might want to go to college. Here is where you shift into “Academic Advisor” mode to help them plan out studies that would satisfy college admissions offices. For more information on this, please click here. But if they are not at all interested in college prep, don’t push it. There are lots of other wonderful things they can be doing with their time. Get them out of the house meeting people and doing worthwhile things as much as possible.

Enjoy your summer, play with your kids, and don’t feel guilty about planning out your unschooled school year.


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