The Lost Gift of Boredom

Monday, June 27, 2016


Great ideas can sprout from boredom. Many years ago, while working as an internal training manager at a large Boston law firm, I was bored. Very bored. After enduring those days of boredom, I finally had an idea: I'll write a book. What followed was an enlightening and productive process of learning how to write a book proposal, find a publishing agent, complete a manuscript, and so on. I left that training job before my first book was published, and began running my own training consulting business, where I was often energized and rarely bored. 

Good things can come from boredom. Yet, with our children, we can sometimes be concerned if they are bored. They may whine. They may bicker. They may seem unsettled, lost, anxious. As anyone who has had their children enrolled in school and then removed them to unschool will tell you, parents and children alike must go through an important process of "de-schooling." In this process, which can often take months or even years, children must re-learn how to drive their own learning, how to identify and pursue their own interests, how to structure their own time, and how to overcome their own boredom--without a grown-up telling them how. Most of these formerly-schooled children spent their time being systematically told what to do, what to think, how to learn in a methodical, top-down way that can easily sap creativity and self-direction. The de-schooling process helps children to re-discover their innate self-educative instincts and reminds them that they are, in fact, in charge of their own time, their own interests, their own learning.


As parents, we can sometimes be overly-focused on making sure our children's days are fully enriched with dynamic classes and activities to keep them from being bored, when, in fact, boredom--and the important ability to overcome it independently--can be an even greater lesson for our children. As Richard Louv writes in his excellent book, Last Child in the Woods: "We need to draw an important distinction between a constructively bored mind and a negatively numbed mind. Constructively bored kids eventually turn to a book, or build a fort, or pull out the paints (or the computer art program) and create, or come home sweaty from a game of neighborhood basketball." 


I think that if we parents can overcome our anxiety about our children's potential boredom and unstructured time, then we will see that children have an amazing talent for making their own play, for finding interesting ways to occupy themselves, and for unleashing their imagination. As Louv states: "Most of all, children need adults who understand the relationship between boredom and creativity…"


These long summer days can be a perfect time for parents to let go and embrace slowly unfolding days, which may be marked by periods of boredom. With many classes and activities on break for the season, it can take a period of adjustment for children and their grown-ups to settle in to slower, more unstructured family rhythms. It may even create tension, when parents become frustrated by a child's boredom. As psychologist and Tufts University professor, David Elkind, writes in his book, The Power of Play: Learning What Comes Naturally: "If these young people were bored and unmotivated, it was not because they were lazy or lacked interest in learning. They were bored and unmotivated because they had been taught that their interests and passions were of little value. And they were, not surprisingly, not about to get interested in what we adults thought they should be learning." 


Children are innately curious and intent on learning about their world and exploring their interests, as long as we grown-ups get out of their way. Our role as parents is to create the time and space and resources for our children's learning and then let them direct their own education, following their own passions. Often to find our passions, to ignite creativity, we need some boredom. We need to allow our children to express their boredom and allow them the freedom to feel empowered to overcome their boredom on their own, without adult intervention. As Boston College psychology professor, Peter Gray, writes"To learn on their own, children need unlimited time to play, explore, become bored, overcome boredom, discover their own interests, and pursue those interests."


So on these slow summer days, let's embrace boredom. Let's give our children the gift of freedom to drive their own learning, their own doing, and uncover their own creative outlets. Let's watch what they can do when given the freedom to do it.


Unschooling, Defined

Sunday, June 26, 2016


"We can best help children learn, not by deciding what we think they should learn and thinking of ingenious ways to teach it to them, but by making the world, as far as we can, accessible to them, paying serious attention to what they do, answering their questions -- if they have any -- and helping them explore the things they are most interested in." ― John Holt

What is unschooling and how does it compare to homeschooling?

The short answer is that all unschoolers are homeschoolers but not all homeschoolers are unschoolers. In fact, it's estimated that only about 10% of homeschoolers in this country are unschoolers, but that number is steadily growing.

Broadly defined, unschooling means placing the highest priority on self-directed learning by avoiding packaged curriculum and using the world as our classroom. In this way, it is different from traditional "school-at-home" homeschooling which brings schooling formats, expectations, and curriculum to the home, and "eclectic" homeschooling, which means using packaged curriculum for some subjects (math, for instance) but not others.

Unschoolers agree on one thing: curriculum hampers natural learning. Beyond that, we're a ragtag bunch.

Some unschooling families categorize themselves as "radical unschoolers," who extend the concepts of unschooling beyond learning to all aspects of living. Check out the work of Sandra Dodd and her Big Book of Unschooling for more about this lifestyle. Some unschoolers prefer the term "life learners" to capture the essence of learning without schooling. As the excellent article in last fall's issue of Cincinnati Magazine states: "For unschoolers there is no deferral -- life is now and education is forever." Explore Life Learning Magazine for great articles and resources, and Laura Grace Weldon's book, Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything.

The term "unschooling" was coined by the legendary educator, John Holt. His influential books, How Children Fail (1964), and later, How Children Learn (1967), exposed the inherent flaws of institutionalized learning and similar "school-at-home" approaches. He once said: "What is most important and valuable about the home as a base for children's growth into the world is not that it is a better school than the schools, but that it isn't a school at all."

On this blog's Facebook page, a reader asked me recently if I thought she would be considered an "unschooler" because her child takes classes, that he chooses, several times a week at a self-directed learning center for homeschoolers. I can't speak for all unschoolers, but many families who identify as unschoolers do this. The key to unschooling is not that children don't take structured classes or sometimes learn specific things from an instructor; the key is that they choose to do it (and to stop doing it if they want), and their parents help to facilitate--not direct--their learning by identifying their interests and connecting them to community resources.

Whole family learning is the term I use to describe our version of unschooling. We value and nurture the individual passions and gifts of each of our children, and connect them to individual classes and mentors as appropriate. At this point in time our world revolves around our family and we make it a priority to spend much of our time learning together, rather than apart. Right now, we learn together from the people, places, and things in our community, including museums, libraries, parks, beaches, trails, farms, gardens, interesting neighbors, weekly homeschool park days, civic events, gatherings with friends and extended family -- and of course, home. 

Semantics aside, my best advice for deciding what kind of unschooler you are is simply to trust the process of natural, self-directed, non-coercive learning. Dr. Peter Gray, Boston College psychology professor and author of Free To Learnwrites: "Learning is so easy, and such fun, when it occurs naturally. We make learning hard and dreary in our classrooms by depriving children of the opportunity to use their natural ways of learning and by replacing them with coercion."

Discover the joy of natural learning and you'll never go back.

Cage-Free Living and Learning

Tuesday, June 21, 2016



“Children learn from anything and everything they see. They learn wherever they are, not just in special learning places.” ― John HoltLearning All The Time


Humans learn. It's what we do. It's how we survive and thrive in the culture to which we're born. The relatively recent experiment of placing children in age-segregated classrooms for the better part of their days and weeks, and at increasingly younger ages, severs children from their community, from the vibrant array of people, places, and things from which they would naturally learn. As Jay Griffiths writes in her exceptional book, A Country Called Childhood: "How has childhood become so unnatural? Why does the dominant culture treat young humans in ways which would be illegal if applied to young dogs? Born to burrow and nest in nature, children are now exiled from it. They are enclosed indoors, caged and shut out of the green and vivid world, in ways unthinkable a generation ago." 

This morning, city workers shut down our street to clean the drains. As the giant orange truck worked its way down the road, its enormous limb reaching into the depths of city sludge and up again, the kids watched. And learned. We chatted with the workers, jovial men who were delighted by the unhindered curiosity of young children. You could tell the men were pleased to share their knowledge, to explain how and why they do what they do. Despite being surrounded by passersby, I imagine city drain-clearing is a lonely job. All it takes is the natural curiosity of kids to see work in a new light, to see opportunities to educate and enlighten, to connect and belong.

In his new book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Sebastian Junger writes about the diminishment of real community and its impact on Americans' mental health and well-being. He explains that in true tribes--like indigenous hunter-gatherer societies, or neighbors collaborating during a disaster, or platoons of soldiers working together in combat--individuals rely on others for survival, and are in turn relied upon. It's this circle of dependence and being depended upon that offers real meaning and fulfillment. The absence of this tribal community leads to isolation and despair. Junger writes that "human beings need three basic things in order to be content: they need to feel competent at what they do; they need to feel authentic in their lives; and they need to feel connected to others. These values are considered 'intrinsic' to human happiness and far outweigh 'extrinsic' values such as beauty, money, and status. Bluntly put, modern society seems to emphasize extrinsic values over intrinsic ones, and as a result, mental health issues refuse to decline with growing wealth."

I think much of the disconnect that characterizes our modern society is reinforced by the self-imposed silos, or cages, in which we spend our days. Children are removed daily from their homes and neighborhoods to spend their days with other children. Adults are removed daily to spend their days with other adults. Senior citizens and the elderly spend their days segregated in retirement communities or senior centers, cut off from the broader community. Perhaps, the argument goes, it's more peaceful, more efficient this way. Kids are with other kids, workers are with other workers, retirees are with other retirees. But what does this do to community? What effects does this caged existence have on our ability to need and be needed, to care and be cared for, to learn and teach, authentically, within a dynamic and diverse tribe?

Perhaps these cages, these silos, in which we increasingly wrap our children are reflective of the mounting enclosures we find in our own lives. Perhaps we cage others because we are caged. Perhaps to free our children we must first free ourselves.

On the Solstice

Monday, June 20, 2016










But I also say this: that light 
is an invitation
to happiness,
and that happiness,
when it's done right,
is a kind of holiness,
palpable and redemptive. 
~ Mary Oliver, "Poppies"

Everyone has their season. Mine is definitely summer. Long, light-filled days spent outside, often by water and near forests and farms, replenish us after icy New England winters. The Solstice is a special time to celebrate this season of warmth and abundance. In ways both ordinary and festive, today we gave a nod to the Earth's tilt -- and a rare, coinciding full strawberry moon. 

After dropping off my oldest at a local day camp with friends, the rest of us tended our community garden which is bursting with goodness! (It also has some pesky aphids on our tomato plants, but a little homemade mix of water and natural dish soap seems to be doing the trick.) After the garden visit, Brian and my seven-year-old played basketball at a nearby court while the two youngest ones and I went to the playground. Later, my toddler and I drove to the little farm outside the city where we collect our weekly egg share, while Brian read to the middles. 

As the afternoon wore on with the sun still high and bright, we packed a picnic dinner and walked to the nearby Harvard Museum of Natural History for its annual Solstice celebration. Underneath a setting sun and rising moon, we enjoyed an evening of live music and dance, summer crafting, and a spectacular circus performance. There is so much to be grateful for in this new season. There is so much to appreciate at this time of year as the Earth fills up our bellies and our spirits. 

Wishing you a bright and happy start to summer!

Guest Post: Attachment Parenting to Unschooling

Friday, June 17, 2016


I'm wrapping up this week of natural learning guests posts with a story by Talia at Our Crazy Joyful Life. If you would like to add to the conversation and share your family's personal story away from school or school-at-home and toward unschooling and natural learning, please email me at: kmcdonald@post.harvard.edu. I hope to hear from you! ~Kerry

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I have always been someone that fit in best with the nontraditional crowd. I have always been someone who likes to research things for myself, instead of taking information handed to me at face value. This certainly was the case after I had my daughter.

From the beginning I was already doing some things differently from my family. I was the first to breastfeed, the first to follow attachment parenting philosophies. So I suppose it wasn’t too surprising that I decided to homeschool by the time my daughter was one year old. While reading many articles on non-punitive peaceful parenting, I stumbled upon unschooling. From the get go it made sense. I had loved the academic part of school, but hated the social part. My husband had always been a nontraditional learner who struggled with the structure of school in spite of his intelligence. We both wanted something different for our kids. We both wanted the children to love learning.

As my daughter grew, and we welcomed my first son into the world, our initial decision became even more set in stone. My daughter has a very big, sparkly, creative personality. I knew that public school would dim her spark. Besides, she was flourishing already. I was witnessing how naturally kids learn and pursue curiosity. Not only did I see no reason why this path wouldn’t work for us, I was quickly gaining confidence that this was the path that my kids would thrive on.

Now my kids are 6, 3, and 6 months. This upcoming school year is the first one we will have to report to our state as homeschoolers. I love how this upcoming year will not look much different than our life now. My kids will still be exploring their natural interests, and I will be facilitating as best I can. I will be finding cool new things they may like, looking up the metropark programs, checking out library books on the subjects they love. We will continue watching TV that we like, and even learn from it. We will go to museums, parks, and splash pads; play Minecraft, superheroes, and toy trains. We will have playdates with old friends and new. They will have free access to the TV, board games, playdough, crayons, books, toys, and many other tools of learning.

Learning is viewed as fun and very normal in this house. It just happens. It is not complicated. I love this path. To me if feels like a natural extension of our attachment parenting. It just flows nicely.

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Talia writes at Our Crazy Joyful Life, where she shares pieces of her life with 3 kids, the start of her family's unschooling journey, as well as gentle parenting thoughts and struggles.

Guest Post: Our Path To Unschooling

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

I just can't get enough of these guest blog posts! I can rattle on about the flaws of education policy and the merits of self-directed education--and I do!--but nothing compares to the real-life stories of the families who have chosen this natural learning path. Don't you agree? 

If you would like to add to the conversation and share your family's personal story away from schooling and toward unschooling, please email me at: kmcdonald@post.harvard.edu. I hope to hear from you! ~Kerry

Now, here is today's natural learning story from Rebekah at Modern Simpler.

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I can still remember sitting at my very first round table discussion and learning about the concept of unschooling for the very first time. 

I had come to the discussion to learn more about different alternative school options as well as homeschool options for my then three-year-old son. We were still a year away from considering preschool, but wanted to start early exploring our alternatives. I learned so much that night, from listening to ex-public school teachers and librarians who had left their jobs to homeschool their own children, from people using Waldorf and Montessori styles at home, and from one woman who was doing something I had only heard of in passing called “unschooling.” 

She talked about their days, of exploring, how her son was doing all sorts of interesting things, her concerns and her joys with the unschooling experience. She also talked about the fact that they used NO Curriculum. No curriculum? NONE?  None. Later, over dinner with a friend I expressed my interest in the concept of unschooling, but also expressed my feelings that “I could never pull that off” because I was just “way too Type A.”

My son is now five. I have lived in research and the practice of unschooling for several years now and I can tell you that I am every bit as Type A as the minute I began this journey. The only difference? I know that being Type A and homeschooling do not mean that I need a curriculum. I have created rhythms and schedules in our home--that work for both the young people and the adults--that are centered around everyone’s own interests, fully without curriculum.

My husband and I entered into thinking about our son’s educational journey with the idea that we would first give public school a try. If our son didn’t like it, then we would switch to an alternative school or to homeschooling. That all changed after his preschool experience. We learned a lot through that experience about what didn’t work for him, but also what didn’t work for us. His last day of preschool started out rough, the same as the last few days had been going there. He was stressed about going--he had even been stressed on days that were not school days--and even on the weekends. After a few weeks of preschool, my husband and I talked and decided that we would try one more day and if our son really wasn’t into it, we would withdraw him.

At drop off that day, he cried and cried (which was not his norm--he tended to run in all excited, and end up crying about an hour later). The conversation that I had with educators that day was what sealed the deal for me: this type of education and school system were not for my son or for me. Upon arrival, the teacher coerced him to go in and see what the kids were doing, and I, seeing how upset he was, told him I would wait outside the door for him if he decided he didn’t want to stay. After he went in, the director came down from upstairs and not so politely told me that if I wanted him to stay in there I would have to leave. I stood firm and told her that I understood the whole "out of sight out of mind thing," but that I had told my son that I would wait for him and that was what I was going to do. 

She said nothing, but didn’t need to; her eyes were shooting daggers. Why? I wasn’t following the “rules” of how you are supposed to “do Drop-off.” Needless to say, my son came back out, crying and wanting to leave. We stopped at a playground on the way home and he ran around, happy as a clam. I felt freed from the stress of doing something that I felt in my heart he didn’t want to do, or simply wasn’t ready for.

We never looked back.


On our journey thus far we have had some challenges, but mostly the experience we have on a daily basis affirms our feelings about our choice to unschool. We love it. The more that school systems become more rigid and test-driven, and in my opinion, disrespectful of young people, the more I believe that this is the most respectful and fulfilling way for my young people to spend their days. They flourish, learn, grow, interact, and are free to explore each and every passion they have. They live life fully, the way it is meant to be lived. 

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Rebekah is a writer, herbalist, and mom of two young boys. She happily lives the unschooling life with her husband and their sons in New Jersey. She writes about all things unschooling, books, outings, and family at Modern Simpler.

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Guest Post: The Gift of Time

Monday, June 13, 2016

On this blog's Facebook page, I recently asked interested readers to share their family's personal story toward learning and away from schooling. I have been profiling these wonderful stories over the past few weeks and have more to come! If you would like to add to the conversation and share your family's personal story toward natural, self-directed education, please email me at: kmcdonald@post.harvard.edu. I hope to hear from you! ~Kerry

Now, here is today's natural learning story from Amanda Shaw at A Life Worth Learning.

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When I think back on our homeschooling journey and wonder what got us here, I think it can most easily be summed up like this: we wanted more, and we wanted less.

The baby days were full of park play dates and coffeehouses. There were books and music and friends and laughter. It’s hard to imagine wanting anything more. But those days of nurturing your child in his whole being, of following her rhythm, of rejoicing in milestones all his own—they’re short. New milestones quickly surface and begin piling one on top of another. The purpose of being four years old, apparently, is to prepare for being five years old. And lest you think you can breathe at five, you better start preparing to be six years old. If you don’t, you’ll fall behind—and you’ll feel it.

In all this, we lost the magic of being four years old. And yet, there were long, sunny days to be filled, and so we accepted it for what it was. But along came school: behaviour charts, reward systems whose complexity rivals that of number theory, a sticker for doing it the “right” way, exclusion from the “good” group if you don’t. You were talking while putting your shoes on? You stay in for recess. You held the door open for the kid behind you? Wow, you’re extra nice, you get a Good Citizen Award or points or tickets to trade in for candy or a chance to skip your homework. Because we all know you don’t really need to do that homework. You read for 15 minutes? Great, write it down and have your mom sign that you did it—because we don’t trust you. You can read novels? Well, we’re only interested in how many 15-minute increments you read last night because this is, after all, another competition.

Off the bus, and it’s homework time, then dinner, bath and bed. All to do it over again the next day. And somewhere in that shuffle, my eager learners were getting tired. Somewhere in that shuffle, the time I had to spend with my kids was being directed by someone else. Somewhere in that shuffle, I began to question what exactly it was that we were doing and what was the expected outcome.

I wanted more: more learning and more happiness along the way. I read book after book on educational philosophy. I reflected upon the time we spent together as a family. I took pen to paper and made a list of our family values, of everything I hoped to impart to my children, of what was most important in our lives and what we saw as end goals. And when this was finished, I was really satisfied with all the work I had done. And it hit me. I realized that I was able to come up with my definition of a life of intent because I had had the time. Precious time.

“It’s a funny thing about life; if you refuse to accept anything but the best, you very often get it.”—W. Somerset Maugham

I also wanted less: less time in the car, fewer papers to sign, less busy work, less moodiness, fewer meetings, less stress.

And so for us, the decision to homeschool has been about giving our family, and especially our children, the gift of time. Time to learn at their rhythm, time to absorb information deeply, time to know what their real interests are, time to make discoveries, time for hard work. One day, we stood hunched over an incubator the entire day to watch chicks hatch. It was a painstakingly slow process—that methodical chipping-open of the egg. But we got to watch it unfold in real time, cheering on each chick throughout its exhausting process.

Time to just be. Not only do we weave the learning experiences around our free time, our free time is a learning experience—and arguably, the most important one. I want my children to have time to develop all aspects of their being. I want them to decide how to spend the majority of their day; I want them to take the reins on their educational experience, feeling out for themselves when, where and how they work best. I want them to be self-directed, self-motivated learners. And I want them to just breathe and enjoy life.

We keep our eyes on the prize: maintaining a strong love of learning, wherever that may lead us. As so many others have said before me, children are born with curiosity and a yearning for knowledge. We just have to offer them an environment that feeds that flame, free of the artificial demands that can snuff it out.

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Amanda Shaw homeschools her three spirited children and blogs about their adventures at A Life Worth Learning.

An Unschooling Thursday

Thursday, June 9, 2016











Today concludes my week-in-the-life-of-an-unschooling family blog series, but of course our whole family learning continues. There are no calendar starts and stops here. 

This week has been really fun, sharing snapshots of the minutiae of our days. Maybe you saw some of your own unschooling rhythms in these posts, or maybe you have more clarity on that common question: "But what do you do all day?" Maybe you have more assurance that this is a lifestyle you could embrace and enjoy. And maybe you see how, for our family, learning and living are constant and inseparable. There are no silos in our week. Learning is not something that happens only at certain times, in certain places, with certain people. There are no "subjects" to cover in certain ways. There is no curriculum: no top-down, artificially-contrived framework dictating what humans should know and when. We learn and live naturally, authentically, following both family and child interests and in alignment with our values. Mainly, our values are centered around the treasured triad of family, community, and the natural world. I hope that was reflected in this week's posts. 

We spent most of today at the Boston Museum of Science, where a local homeschool dad was kind enough to organize a homeschool group field trip to see the Lewis and Clark Imax show. This particular film is only available to museum "school" groups, so it was a treat to be able to join other area homeschoolers for this event. Brian took the three older ones to the film, while my two-year-old and I explored the museum. As the day wore on and my littlest got sleepy, he and I walked home for a nap while Brian and the older kids spent several more hours at the museum. 

When the crew arrived home mid-afternoon, everyone was beat from a busy day. We made dinner, read books, played, and my oldest worked on creating a knitted headband with Ireland's colors for tomorrow's "World Cup" homeschool soccer game. Also tomorrow, we're all heading down the road to MIT for a Chemistry Magic Show for homeschoolers. An MIT Chemistry professor, who was homeschooled his whole life, reached out to me a year ago saying that he wanted to offer some free programming and internship opportunities specifically for local homeschoolers. He wanted to know if there would be any interest. For tomorrow's program he got 300 RSVPs in just a couple of hours. I would say that's interest!

It's a great time to be a homeschooler, friends! And an even better time to be an unschooler. I look forward to sharing more with you about our unschooled life in the days to come. Thanks for following along!

An Unschooling Wednesday

Wednesday, June 8, 2016















It's a good thing we live just a couple of blocks from our public library's main branch because we are there almost every day. My nine-year-old, especially, plows through books and announced just after breakfast today that we had to go immediately to get the second in The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place book series. It's also good that our library doesn't have a cap on book borrowing, and has a generous renewal policy, because we typically have close to 100 books checked-out at any given time!

While Brian and my five-year-old went to the hardware store, the rest of us walked to the library and then the kids spent time reading while I made lunch. After lunch, we did some house cleaning, followed by some more planting. A friend gave us some bee balm, mint, and scallions from her city garden so we added them to our little patio container garden.

Later in the afternoon, after some more caterpillar chrysalis marveling, Brian took the three older kids to our community garden, and my toddler and I walked a couple of blocks to pick-up our first summer CSA share from an organic farm in Western Mass. The CSA share, combined with our weekly delivery of milk and cheese and meat from Vermont's Farmers To You, our weekly egg share from nearby Meadow Mist Farm, and daily city farmers' markets, now means much less time at the market and much more time eating no-barcode, farm-fresh food. This is definitely my most favorite time of the year!