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Let Kids Learn What They Want

Do kids need to learn math?  When do they need to learn to read?  Are history, art, and civics still important?  Do kids still need well-rounded educations (whatever that means)?  A recent conversation on edu twitter revolved around an article printed in the Atlantic quoting the results of a research study: the vast majority of people use little math beyond fractions in their daily lives.  As a white collar worker in engineering who rarely uses math beyond fractions I’m inclined to believe it.

Here’s the thing though, does any of this really matter?  What if instead of deciding what was important to learn, spending countless hours debating what we should force other people to learn; what if we just let those people learn what they were interested in?  And of course, the people of which I speak are kids because really, how many of us would deign to think it was OK to tell anyone that wasn’t a kid what they had to learn?

Here’s what I’ve seen with the unschoolers here.  The oldest unschooling kid, eight year-old No. One knows how to read.  She pretty much taught herself, and has been reading for the last three years or so.  Meanwhile, her sibs six year-old No. Two and four year-old No. Three haven’t learned yet.  They’ve all received the same basic encouragement, which is to say virtually no consistent explicit encouragement.  We enjoy discussing the things that we’ve read, and that probably sparks more interest in reading from the gang than anything else.  Life would be easier for my partner and I if Two and Three knew how to read, so we’ve occasionally tried to encourage or ‘teach’ them.  These efforts, however, have always met with a reduced desire to read from those two.

Meanwhile, Two and Three’s numeric literacy is cranking up all on its own.  Why?  I’m not sure, but the two kids who can’t keep 26 letters straight are doing an admirable job of keeping almost half as many—10—numerals perfectly straight in their heads.  If I had to guess, I’d say it’s because they’re on public transit all day every day, and to get to the right place, you have to get on the bus with the right numbers.  Furthermore, that makes it about geography which is Two’s forte.

Six year-old No. Two has been telling nannies—especially new ones—how to get places since he was three.  And, he’s been correct.  Geography is one his passions, and perhaps if there is such a thing, one of his inborn talents.  He memorizes not just landmarks, but neighborhood feels.  He’ll look out of a bus we haven’t been on in months and say, “We’ve been here before…”  Before long, he’s telling me about the thing we did several blocks away from that very spot.  He revels in sneaking off on new routes home that he’s figured out, or is figuring out.  He ditches us, but turns up at the house.  Geography is one of the things he’s great at, but if he was at a public school, it wouldn’t matter, what with all the emphasis on reading and math.  Furthermore, in public school he’d never have been able to find his passion in the first place because he would have been locked inside a school building all day every day.

Two and Three aren't just recognizing numbers,  they're developing their math abilities as well.  In Three’s case, I think this development may be directly related to the cooking class she loves at a nearby Parks & Rec center.  The kids measure out their own ingredients.  They use knives.  They peel vegetables.  They’re in control of what they’re doing, and they learn incredibly fast.

The gang has a slew of other abilities that would have gone undeveloped in a typical school environment.  Two learns new physical skills at the drop of a hat.  He learned to cast an open-faced reel on our last few camping trips, a reel that most of my adult friends can’t or don’t care to master.  One has learned to solder, build circuits, analyze logic gates and program.  Three moves around independently with her sibs, sticking with them, taking over parts of their shopping jobs, and being assertive with adults.  I’m super-proud of every one of these unique skills they’ve developed without a curriculum.

As far as forcing kids to learn art, history or government?  Yeah, no.  Well, what I really mean is yeah, no, we haven’t had to force them to learn any of this.  My partner and I have exposed them to things, but the learning has kicked in at their own pace.  When they’re ready.  We talked about government with the kids because it’s all around us in our everyday lives.  The kids listened, they didn’t yearn for more information though.  Until they found out their local playground was going to be closed for improvements.  Then, we were at a city supervisors’ meeting the next week meeting our district’s supervisor.

The gang love history because they love stories.  They love to hear about what happened to their Granddaddy, as they call him, when he was a kid.  This leads to talking about what was going on when he was a kid.  These stories developed a willingness in them to listen to other stories about the history of our country and the world.

They’ve been exposed to art because their oldest sib No. One loves to do art.  This has led to them being in lots of museums, artist’s studios and galleries.  When and if Two or Three develops a passion for art, they’ll know where to go, who to talk to and how to talk to them.  They’ve got the basics down.  I’m confident their passions will carry them the rest of the way to where each of them wants to be.

So, do I worry about what we should force kids to learn or what should be on the curriculum?  Nope, I don’t.  I think if we gave all people the respect and trust they deserve to manage their own lives, we might just live in a much happier place.


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