Free Range Learning: Another Name for “Unschooling”

Very young children are filled with a thirst for learning all the skills they think they need to become a full player in the adult world they see around them. They are too young to know what they are letting themselves in for, but that eager thirst for learning will help them build useful foundations for further learning and development.

A rich environment of learning opportunities should be provided, with close attention paid to the child’s developing interests and abilities. Early learning should contain an element of play. Learning should not be associated in the child’s mind with compulsion or forced limitation of movement.

Structured education is actually very new to the human experience. Worse, it actually undermines the way children are primed to advance their abilities and mature into capable adults. __Laura Grace Weldon

Modern factory-style mass-production education is a significant impediment to childhood learning and maturation. This “Prussian style” of education should have been written off as a failed experiment decades ago. Instead, it is shoved down the throats of every child whose parents are unable to provide an alternative.

Here is how children are raised in hunter-gatherer societies:

… Play fosters learning in realms such as language, social skills, and spatial relations. It teaches a child to adapt, innovate, handle stress, and think independently. Even attention span increases in direct correlation to play.

Playfulness can’t be separated from learning. Children watch and imitate the people around them. The child’s natural desire to build his or her capabilities doesn’t have to be enforced. Instruction happens when the child seeks it. The learning environment is particularly rich when young people are surrounded by adults performing the tasks necessary to maintain their way of life. Children naturally learn as they playfully repeat what they see and begin to take part in these real life tasks. Mastering all the skills for self-reliance isn’t easy. Hunger-gatherer children must recognize thousands of species of plants and animals as well as how to best obtain, use, and store them. They must know how to make necessary items such as nets, baskets, darts, carrying devices, clothing, and shelter. They need to learn the lore of their people and pass along wisdom through story, ritual, and art. And perhaps most importantly, they need to be able to cooperate and share in ways that have allowed humanity to thrive. In such cultures, children learn on their own timetables in ways that best use their abilities.

… We don’t have to live as hunter-gatherers do to restore natural learning to children’s lives. Homeschoolers and unschoolers have been doing this, quite easily, for a very long time. Our children learn as they are ready and in ways that augment strong selfhood. They stay up late to stargaze or make music or design video games, knowing they can sleep late the next morning. They may fill an afternoon reading or actively contribute to the community. They have time to delve into topics of interest to them, often in much greater depth and breadth than any curriculum might demand. They explore, ask questions, volunteer, hang out with friends of all ages, take on household responsibilities, daydream, seek challenges, make mistakes and start over. They’re accustomed to thinking for themselves and pursuing their own interests, so they’re more likely to define success on their own terms. Because homeschooing/unschooling gives them the freedom to be who they already are, it pushes back against a world relentlessly promoting narrow definitions of success.

This kind of natural learning isn’t just an antidote to the soul crushing pressure of test-happy schools. It’s the way young people have learned throughout time.

Let children sleep in. Let them dream. Let them wake to their own possibilities. _Excerpts from Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything by Laura Grace Weldon

Free range learning is about learning through experiencing life naturally. It is often referred to as “unschooling.” Some parents may take the idea too far and neglect the instilling of good habits of responsibility and ambition. But if contact with the child has been closely maintained throughout childhood, and is of an honest, open, and loving nature, a parent should be able to determine the sort of encouragement and life exposure which should be most helpful.

Parents who believe in self-directed learning allow children of all ages to continue learning naturally and at their own pace. For example, the parent of a child who is interested in birds might buy him a new pair of binoculars and a bird-watching guide. The parent may help the child construct a birdfeeder so there will be more opportunities to observe birds in the backyard. With help, the child may do research online about birds they’ve encountered in addition to picking up additional books on the topic at the local library. These activities may serve as a springboard for creating a book or project about what they’ve learned, and the parent will once again be there to support, encourage, and yes, teach. Traditionally schooled children typically play a more passive role in the learning process while unschoolers are actively engaged throughout the day.

… Autonomous children are empowered children—empowered to make choices and to evaluate the consequences of their choices within real contexts rather than going through life believing that they have no choices. __ Free Range Learning FAQs

The above example illustrates how unschooling encourages the child to develop initiative and internal resources for teaching himself to learn for the love of learning.

This style of education may very well not work for all children. It should be obvious early on whether unschooling will be workable for the parent-child ensemble in question. Children must demonstrate learning in various areas. But most critically, the child should be learning to think for himself and to teach himself to learn from as full a range of materials and experiences as life offers — and parents allow.

A child who “knows” a lot of facts on an exam — but who does not have the ability to solve real world problems or to teach himself to understand new topics of interest — is at a serious disadvantage when at the end of his education he is regurgitated by the system out into an unsympathetic “real world.”

Here are a number of “curricula choices” recommended by the author of freerangelearning.com blog. It is not an exhaustive list of homeschooling curricula or aids, but it is a good place to look for ideas.

The Dangerous Child curriculum is an adaptation of the “free range” approach, in the sense that it is closely adapted to the individual child’s nature and abilities. Dangerous Children learn to work and think resourcefully — both alone and in groups of mixed age. Every Dangerous Child must master at least three ways to support himself financially by the age of 18, and every DC must learn survival, evasion, rescue, and defence skills of various sorts.

Self-teaching is an important part of the process. But in addition, children can work together in a group to develop teamwork, problem-solving skills, and workable methods of social interaction. Dangerous skills — such as using power tools and metal fabrication methods to construct boats, shelters, sleds, and other devices and machines — work best when a team of Dangerous Children has learned to trust each other by working together on earlier projects. As they go on to learn to navigate cross country, on the water, and in the air, these teamworking skills will prove even more valuable.

There are things that every young child needs to learn, including self-control and self-discipline, to pave the way to a Dangerous Childhood. These are part of executive function, which should ideally be learned by the age of seven years. If for some reason the child is unable to develop self-control or self-discipline, his ability to self-teach is likely to be impaired. Further, if the child remains without self-control to the age of 10 or 12, it is unlikely that parents will want to teach the child the many dangerous and potentially lethal disciplines that are integral to the Dangerous Child Method.

In the future we will be looking at some milestones of progress that parents should be looking for. Each phase of learning fits into the next phase, at the proper time for each child. Multiple threads of development and learning should be ongoing at any given time. A child may be relatively advanced in music and reading, but somewhat slower in maths or in the workshop. As long as he displays self-discipline, resourceful thinking, and the ability to self-teach, he should be allowed to develop at his own pace, without undue pressure to perform.

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