Month 3 of Learning at Home – How Can I Make Unschooling Work in this Environment?

FOREWORD: If you’re new to homeschoolingmiddleeast, welcome! I highly recommend that you start reading from ‘Day 1’. The fastest way to access this is to look for ‘Archives’ on the right hand side of the home page, click on ‘February 2012’ and scroll down to the bottom of the page that opens. If you want a quick first visit, you could type a term e.g. ‘socialization’ or ‘university’, into the ‘Search’ box or of course you could just read my latest posts without doing anything!

Why I recommend starting at Day 1 is because this is an adventure into homeschooling that is not yet 3 months old and the journey has been a rollercoaster  – philosophically and emotionally, catalogued daily for the first couple of months. For you to get the full intellectual and dramatic impact, it’s best to start at the beginning. You might be contemplating home educating and wonder what those early nail-biting days feel like or you might enjoy reading somebody else’s take on an experience you share with me, or you might be more generally interested in my thoughts and feelings on education and parenting. Whatever the reason you’re reading, I’m really humbled that you’re taking your valuable time to do so and I really hope I can be some kind of hope or inspiration for you. Thank you! Now for today’s post…

I haven’t written for a while because I was really uneasy about what to write, frankly.  I would never want to waste a reader’s time writing meaningless posts. There is no particular issue that has caught my attention lately and I didn’t want to write about how our learning at home adventure is going. Why? Because I don’t know how to evaluate it. But I’ve decided to try because somebody else might benefit from my struggle. I do hope so, because I don’t think we are!

A good day to me is a day when I manage to get Edward interested in whatever it is I want him to be interested in – a DVD about restoring a Leonardo Da Vinci masterpiece, an ‘Intellego’ unit about France and its music and art (in preparation for our European holiday), a storybook that sneaks in Impressionist paintings. I just hope that showing interest and being engaged results in learning. With regards to Maths, Edward’s still quite enjoying ‘Life of Fred’ although it does introduce some difficult concepts that even I don’t know anything about, like the concept of something being ‘commutative’ and whether various scenarios are commutative or not – very interesting but Edward (and barely I) can remember the term from one day to the next so is it worthwhile learning about? Discussing it is interesting. So, who knows, maybe if the actual term isn’t remembered the concept of some things having to be done in a particular order will be remembered and is hopefully valuable e.g. the fact that you can’t put your socks on after your shoes is like the fact that number order in subtraction is important. This is not the case with addition. For example, you can add 2 to 3 just as sensibly as 3 to 2 (and it doesn’t matter what order you put your hat and scarf on) but subtracting 3 from 2 will have a different result from subtracting 2 from 3, as with shoes and socks. Edward knows this about subtraction but maybe thinking about as a principle; that the order of things is sometimes crucial and sometimes of no importance, is going to be something he needs to more thoroughly understand. Otherwise why would the creator of ‘Life of Fred’ introduce this esoteric term?

But this shouldn’t be how a good day should look like. It makes ME feel better if I feel I’ve TAUGHT Edward something. It makes me feel like I’ve done my job. I don’t mind being judged for not following a particular curriculum. I feel OK about that because I believe learning is so much more effective if Edward learns something he’s interested in. But, if, as usual, he isn’t showing a specific interest in something then I can’t help myself but try and MAKE him interested in something – by getting all enthusiastic about Impressionism or chromatics (as a component of learning about colour in art) or the solar system or anything else he’s shown a glimmer of interest in before. He’ll go along with this for a bit. But it never seems to be for long enough and then it’s the afternoon and we’re doing a playdate or he thinks lessons are over and it’s playtime in his room or it’s the weekend and he thinks we shouldn’t do anything at all and I feel like he’s had about 30 minutes of ‘teaching time’ (an  another 30 minutes of Maths) all day, all week. How will he ever learn anything??

I completely agree with the belief that children are not empty vessels that have to be filled with knowledge. I do believe that teachers/parents should not try and ‘pour’ knowledge into kids, in the way they do so much at school. But equally, I don’t see many opportunities for Edward to be able to get excited about things and ask or follow these interests – IF IT DOESN’T INVOLVE BOOKS. My only resource is books and whatever is inside my head and to a lesser extent the Net and I don’t have a very extensive library yet and I don’t have access to a non-fiction library pretty much at all in Bahrain.

I would love Edward to wake up in the morning and decide what he wants to learn – to snuggle down with a book about planets, to want to continue with his big piece of art from his last art lesson, to build a really elaborate Lego construction, to ask to learn about something or other and we try and do so from the internet. But if this doesn’t happen, there is not much I can think to do to spark his interest in anything unless it comes out of a book, which is not the greatest place to spark enthusiasm for something for a 7 year old boy who isn’t a big fan of non-fiction books. Books would be a great adjunct to building on an enthusiasm though and I wish I at least had more of them. I want Edward to guide his learning. I want to be less didactic. But I can’t see how this will ever happen in our current environment.

Unschooling is great in the situations that I’ve read about but I can’t see that they can apply to us. For instance, the famous unschooling family, the Colfax’s. They raised their kids on a remote farm in northern California and 3 of them got to Harvard. I can’t work out how, even after reading the book they wrote about it, but for sure those kids had some very interesting learning opportunities. They learned a lot of Maths from building on the farm and running their own little businesses. A child following a self-employed parent to work or getting a chance to run his own goat rearing business would be great learning. Other unschoolers do very regular museums and gallery visits or visits to fascinating historic places – like all the places we hope to visit in Europe. It would be easy to unschool living in/near a European city. I mean look at this place that we’re looking forward to visiting in the Netherlands: Archeon ( Adults are dressed up and ‘in character’. They dress up and act out living in the Bronze and Iron Ages. And they do ‘real’ gladiator fights to illustrate Roman times. THIS is the way to get a 7 year old boy interested in a period of history – and THEN you can get the books out! There are so many places like this in other countries but nothing at all similar here. I met a marvelously resourceful lady who queried my inability to find anything really inspiring to teach in a hands-on way in Bahrain who said her kids were really interested in her lessons about tiny aquatic creatures and I thought, ‘You are so lucky. I cannot see my son doing this.’

The best I can do is try is to see if my enthusiasm for various subjects rubs off on Edward with short periods with relevant books, chats and anything interesting on ‘youtube’ to illustrate a point. And ideally I try and find other enthusiasts. For example, in the art class we’re attending, both kids are spending an hour twice a week, for a month, with two incredibly enthusiastic artists who are so great with kids. Even if they don’t come away learning any kind of formal technique or other ‘know how’, I am far happier that they were around people passionate about art who were giving them attention on a kid-oriented level. It was great to take them to a photography exhibition next door, but there’s nothing like being with people.

It’s true. I’m in a slough of despair. I don’t want to scold my son when he doesn’t want to learn anything; doesn’t want to look at or talk about any of my interesting art, history or science books. If I get annoyed by his lack of interest or feel it’s not enduring enough and try and push him to ‘learn more’, he’ll twist the knife in and say, “I hate art!” or “I hate reading!” and I know I’ve done a very, very poor job as a home educator make him feel this way, even momentarily. Whenever he’s had enough, even if it’s after a mere 10 minutes, I want to say “That’s fine, just go and learn something else”. But what?? He can’t go off and tinker with the insides of a tractor and learn how gears and levers work in real life because it’s not right there on our doorstep to have a go with. If Edward suddenly had a desperate interest in doing this, I’d find a tractor I’m sure, but the point is, there isn’t a rich learning environment, outside of books (and this isn’t nearly as rich as I’d like it to be) on our doorstep which seems crucial to successful unschooling. There aren’t things that he can just have a go with. There aren’t things lying around for him to try and perchance develop an interest in. With children especially, you don’t know if it’s interesting to see how a mechanical vehicle works until you start finding out how a mechanical vehicle works. In John Holt’s seminal work ‘How Children Learn’ (which I’ve just started reading) this seems to be a main way kids learn and get interested, by having a go at something, with their hands.

I don’t want to do ‘school at home’. So, I’ve been trying relaxed homeschooling/eclectic  learning at home but it doesn’t feel productive enough;  it doesn’t seem like Edward’s learning very much because we hardly sit together with a book or other resource for any amount of time a day, because what I’m offering doesn’t hold Edward’s interest for terribly long. And I can’t see how I can unschool because what’s he going to learn from? What community? What beautiful natural environment? What fascinating museums? I do not believe school is a better place for my children to be. Edward at least is not the sort of child to be fascinated by what comes out of the teacher’s mouth or her printed worksheets. But I am extremely frustrated that I can’t offer what I’d like to offer at home and I just don’t want to go the virtual school route or other constructed learning environment where he would have to learn what he’s told to learn and when to learn it.

Edward is a bright boy, that has always been said. He can get extremely engaged with interesting things. He’s a thinker. He’s very interested in the world around us. How it works. The people in it. But just living together thoughtfully, answering his questions as we go about our daily life, doesn’t seem to me to be a rich enough learning experience to me, even for a 7 year old.

Any realistic suggestions anyone? Other than move!!

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About homeschoolingpenny

Hi and welcome! My name is Penny and I used to live in Bahrain but In November 2012 moved to Dubai and now we live in Granada, Spain! If you want to contact me my email is I recommend you start my blog on 'Day 1' but please enjoy whatever you dip into. 23 February 2012 marked the first day of no more school FOREVER for my two kids. Edward, who is nearly 10 had attended a variety of schools since he was very little. Petra, who is now 6, has never gone to school. On this date we decided Edward was never going back to school and Petra never would go to school. We hope to successfully homeschool from this day forward, although we would consider an alternative school as an option- if there was some amazing Sudbury or other really alternative school. Actually, I prefer the term 'home learning' than 'homeschool' because I don't like to think of school coming into our home. In fact, I hope to go further and guide/learn alongside, rather than teach, my kids using the 'unschooling' philosophy to instill a lifelong love of learning in them. We lived in the Middle East and now Spain all of which are very challenging places to home educate. This is an exciting journey that I used to blog about regularly, at first it was on an almost daily basis. Please join me on our travels and I hope we might be able to help each other out along the way. I certainly hope I can be a source of support and comfort and, in time, knowledge to all potential/presently participating homeschoolers/home educators/unschoolers. Good luck to us all! If you want to read about why I started home educating, why I pulled my son out of a 'very good' private school mid-term, how I felt at the very start and how my philosophy has evolved, please start from 'Day 1' of the blog. Please do post comments at the end of any days that you read. Your opinion is valuable and it's great to start up debate amongst other people commenting too, however old the post. Thank you for visiting homeschoolingmiddleeast.
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15 Responses to Month 3 of Learning at Home – How Can I Make Unschooling Work in this Environment?

  1. Unschooling, what an idea! I would love to allow my children to learn with out any structure, but I know that they would take advantage and just not learn. I am not saying it won’t work for others, just not me. I am more relaxed/eclectic type homeschooler and I think this is a great middle ground. It allows my children freedom, but still they learn continually. We do ALOT of unit studies, have you thought about trying these? You can create your own or buy them pre-made. Currclick and AmandaBennett have some wonderful ones. What I like about these are that my children pick out what it is they want to learn about, so its not forced, but I still expect them to learn and not just quit. Another Idea is online games. My kids love getting on to sites like Nickjr or . , they learn and enjoy themselves at the same time 😉
    I hope this helps and I wish you all the best!

    • Hi Sunshinegirl, Thanks so much for the advice! I have read a lot about unschooling and it sounds amazing but takes a total ‘think outside the box’ mindset change and I can’t quite get there yet. I think unit studies could be the way to go. The ‘Intellego’ one we tried didn’t always have the greatest links. I must be bothered to tell them but others are probably great. Some friends love them. I used to work for NickJr but didn’t think of it since I just thought ‘entertainment cartoons’ but I will definitely try it. ‘Learning games’ I looked at before for typing games to improve his speed but they were too fast and he found it demoralizing! But I’ll go back and look again for other ones. Thanks so much again!

  2. Let’s start with reading historical fiction to him. It might spark an interest in history or a career path or even a type of science. It is ok to let him enjoy a fiction book and when he asks questions about something from the book you can help him find the interesting non-fiction on the topic. For instance, I read the Little House of the Prairie series to my children and it has sparked interests in 19th century clothing, food, houses, homesteads in general and animals. They even excitedly looked up encyclopedia information about Laura Ingalls Wilder.

    For the use of maths and science in a more hands on way like the Colfax’s perhaps you could find second hand objects like clocks and give him the tools to take it apart and put it back together. Also, see if you can find science experiment books like the ones by Jan Van Cleve (I am not sure the name is completely right but at least similar). Maybe one day a week you have a little bit of read aloud time and then do an experiment and chat about it. What does he think will happen? Why do you think that will happen? What actually did happen and how was it different from your guess (if it was)? As for that commutative properties thing…..VERY IMPORTANT in the future. Remembering the term may be used but the actual action is so important in higher maths.

    When it comes to him reading on his own, let him choose his own books and send him off for quiet reading time while the younger sibling sleeps or you are cooking or something. In addition to that have him read his Life of Fred books to you.

    Actively trying to convince him to be interested in your interests will quite possibly backfire. This may be why he gets frustrated and says he hates reading or art. He would probably love his reading and his art but he needs time to find his reading and his art first. For art you might just see about having lots of different supplies around and trying different things yourself and giving him time to see what he likes doing with those supplies while spending time with you.

    I totally understand the frustration with being in an area that seems limited for history (here we can see hands on for the civil war and maybe Texas revolution but even that is limited). Take advantage of every holiday to get to someplace with interesting opportunities. Get guide books and have him browse with you and plan the itinerary. We are headed to New Jersey so are planning to visit places related to the American revolution, civil war, 18-19th century living, Thomas Edison and on the way home popping into a Laura Ingalls Wilder museum. Something he sees on holiday might be what sparks his interest to learn for months later.

  3. ogglepoggle says:

    What about giving him a video-recorder and asking him (with help) to make a video… give him complete control of what its about even if he just wants to role-play (I seem to remember you writing this was what he likes doing… may need to have friends there too) Perhaps he could narrate what’s happening – or add this on afterwards and it could become a series of adventures?? Or can you set him a challenge to make a video about something he has been enthused about – solar system? he will need to find ways to explain things like position of planets – perhaps make some models (papier mache planets? paint them or make model of planet surface and lego vehicle) Is this something he might enjoy doing?

    • That is so funny. Edward was doing some fantastic role play/imaginary games this morning with this sister. I wanted to record what it was all about because it was fascinating. I set up the camera and asked him to talk into it and describe what he was doing. He brought it back about 10 minutes later, still running and said he’d finished doing it. He LOVES to record what he’s doing. I sometimes do it in his Art class too because he has some fascinating ideas about what he’s painting too. Very deep. So, FAB idea!! But I think we should do this way more! Thanks so much!

  4. Well Ms. Penny, I say what’s to stop you from holding your own re-enactments at home!? My children (of course we are stateside) participate in the S.C.V. (a lineage society) and re-enact civil war battles, and the “S.a.R. and D.a.R.” and re-enact revolutionary war battles. Although in Bahrain there are not such resources….one could still do it as a family :). Have a blast teaching the kids about the famous battles such as Gettysburg etc. and allow them to build their own “cannons” by making marshmallow shooters ;). If they would like to, allow them to sew or “repurpose” a uniform. You could teach ANY period of history through experience…..even if it were ancient Greece, Egypt or Rome. We recently made MUMMIES! I would gladly share the “recipe” for mummifying a hotdog 🙂 As it is, I am completely unaware of what resources may or may not be available in Bahrain, so if you could enlighten me I am certain I could give you a wealth of ideas!

  5. OH…and are you on facebook!? My kids make “documentary” video clips all of the time haha maybe if your little guy saw them it might spark some interest?

    • Yes please! I’m penny montford on fb. Please try and fb me to share these videos. I could do with more real ideas. I’ve never see an historical re-enactment in my life so I’m looking forward to the one in the Netherlands even if it will all be in Dutch!

      • Hiya, I found the snake photos but nothing I could see of re-enactment. I am probably being dumb but could you tag those like you did the snake ones? I am SO sorry to bother you!

  6. I felt so upset for you when I read your post : (. I feel the same way regarding their food for example and it can keep me upset for a whole day because they did not eat well/healthy! So I can visualize how tough it is on you. I think unschooling is much harder than homeschooling (both would merge eventually) but to take your kid of school and try to customize him to be a home educated, that is very difficult! Keep on your persistence and patience. I believe these come primarily.
    Second, may I suggest you change your attitude with him? I mean that maybe he needs another way of dealing rather than asking/trying to stimulate him. He grows more stubborn I think. So, maybe you can try make an hour for learning whether he liked it or not, the only thing he can do is pick up something, even if it isn’t the best for him, it should the most bearable one. Or you can trade, for example, we can do such and such if you did this. If this didn’t work or you didn’t like to apply it, why don’t you try ignoring him and focusing with Petra? Some kiddos get stimulated (sometimes a little bit jealous) when he finds you are doing fun stuff with his sibling. Or maybe get yourself engaged in some project about history or art and from time to time ask for his help as if he is your savior to finish it.
    I don’t think that Edward needs much of information change as much he needs an attitude change… Hope this helps you in anyway … Good luck dear, I appreciate your experience and thanks so much for sharing it!

    • Today Edward said, “Mummy, I LOVE learning. I especially love learning with homeschooling”. Wow! It was just a bad day I think. I hope you read the next post about how yesterday went. Much more upbeat! I think we just needed the weekend! Thanks so much for your comments. I shall definitely think of them next time we hit a bump in the road, which will happen again, it always does 😉

  7. Athena says:

    hi, i can relate to how you are feeling – that bit about being isolated and not having access to libraries and other stuff like museums, etc … your edward seems to be a bright boy, perhaps it would be easier on you if you learned about his learning style. i had a harder time before i learned about my boys’ learning style. have you looked at sonlight curriculum? by buying from them, you also gain access to their private forum where HS moms (and there are many abroad) offer support and encouragement to one another. you could also try the well-trained mind forum but i find that harder to navigate/search. hth!

    • Hi Athena, Thanks so much for the feedback and suggestions. I did look at Sonlight but its Philosophy doesn’t suit me. I have recently found out about Global Village School which does suit us philosophically and is very book-based like Sonlight but I think I’m pretty happy to find our own way, trying to match Edward’s interests.I don’t want to spend a lot on books and find he’s not interested in their subject matter. We’ll see. But a great library or access to Netflix etc… would be such a help for me to be able to jump in and build on his interests! I think Edward’s very visual but with unschooling, since I’m not trying to teach too much, I’m not sure this matters, although that is why I’d love to have access to more DVDs e.g. on Art – the different styles for instance. We have a few books, we google images a lot but it’s not the same. It’s piecemeal and time consuming compared to someone who’s put it all together for an episode in a series or something. I love, adore books and reading but he’s not there yet. I’ll have a look at the well-trained mind forum. Thanks again! Very best wishes! Penny

  8. shaema imam says:

    Try the book 50 dangerous things (you should let your child do). My brother gave it to me and it has some really good ideas for physical things your son can do with info on the science behind them, can do them anywhere in the world. Have you tried desert camping yet? Have you befriended any actual native bahrainis? I find i struggled with this for my whole time in bahrain. I was living in the ‘bahrain lite for expats’. I know this is easier said than done, but the bahrain accessible to english speakers is very shallow and “new/immature”. What about finding out more about falconry, that falcon guide at Adhari park always looks lonely. Perfumery, how to be a perfect generous host, calligraphy, oral storytelling, … I guess finding out about social justice issues there is a delicate and dangerous territory now…

    • All great ideas. One of my best friends is Bahraini! I treasure our friendship for many reasons, including the fact she can educate me about Bahrain in a special way, especially during such difficult times. She just passed on some details about possible fencing lessons so we’ll be looking into that. I am very busy with my own interests, it’s how to find cultural/historical depth for the kids!

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