Unschooling the Tween

I’ve had a big epiphany recently: my daughter is a Tween. This has gotten me thinking about the next phase of unschooling and what that will look like for her. I’m somewhat prepared for this, having been an avid reader of Miranda’s Nurtured by Love blog for years. It’s been fascinating to read about what unschooling looks like as her children have entered their tweens and teens.

Unschooling young children is easy if you follow the belief that “Play is a child’s work”.

The field of developmental psychology has provided plentiful evidence about the importance of play to all aspects of a child’s development. All young mammals play, and all do so to prepare for adult life. They learn the skills they need to learn while playing, and human children are no exception. To unschool your young children all you really need is 1) exposure to a variety of experiences (books, field trips, ideas, activities) and 2) oodles of free, unstructured time. It doesn’t really get more complicated than that. But I’m finding (and have read this before) that Daughter is starting to show signs of that not being enough for her. It’s not that unschooling isn’t working, it’s that what unschooling looks like is changing for her.

Play was her work for so long, but she is showing signs of wanting something that might more closely resemble what we adults might consider as work. Not in the sense of bringing home an income for meaningless and unfulfilling labour, but of engaging more deeply with one’s interests and passions. Of taking things to the next level: more complexity, more structure, longer timelines. She’s not at the point where she is thinking and planning about “what she’ll be when she grows up” – that, from what I understand, will start to appear in the early teen years. And here I go off on an interesting tangent…

The notion of adolescence is, I believe, an artificial construct of our societal structure, where youth are kept segregated from society by forced education and laws that prevent them from participating fully in the adult world. It’s a vicious circle: the kids are kept out of the adult world just when their natural programming is driving them to take on more responsibility and independence. So then they create their own world (so-called “youth culture”), and often the goals of their culture conflict with adult culture, and then adults decide that kids are not capable of adult responsibility and so pass more laws to deny them opportunities to participate in that world. These days many consider even 20-somethings to be immature and irresponsible.

Miranda first brought this issue to my attention (see this blog post) and I highly recommend the book The Case Against Adolescence. You can skip the parts where the author condones corporal punishment, and I think some of his proposed solutions are impractical, but he does a great job of explaining how we, as a society, infantilize our youth such that many of them (and I include myself in that category) lack the maturity and experience to really start thinking about, say, beginning a family until well into their 30’s. Biologically and historically they are ready for that in their teen years.

This young girl is responsible and experienced enough to care for her siblings.

Apprenticeships for young people are undervalued in our modern culture.

So what happens when that infantilization process is removed? What is the natural course of evolution from childhood to adulthood? What does that transition really look like? Unschooling allows us to observe this natural process and I have found the results to be fascinating.

Based on descriptions of this process by people I know in real life, as well as bloggers like Miranda, it appears that some time around the early teen years kids start to think ahead about what they want to do and where they want to go in life. They start working on more complex timelines than just “what do I feel like doing today?”. Some of them may start to want more structure in their lives, more focussed time to devote to specific projects or activities that have a longer term goal. They may choose to attack a goal from multiple angles. At this point simply “playing” for the joy of it doesn’t quite cut it for them anymore, though hopefully we all retain some play time in our lives even as adults! Tweens are caught between this world of Childhood Work (free, unstructured time) and Adult Work (focussed activity that takes place over much longer timelines).

I’ll share a couple of observations about Daughter that led me to realize she is beginning to make this transition herself. I’ve noticed over the last few months that she is engaging in more complex projects that require more time. It’s no longer something that can be done in a couple hours one day on a whim, but requires repeated effort spread out over time. Her work becomes more focussed, with more depth to it. For example, she is writing stories and comics with more complex roles for her characters, more complex story lines, deeper emotions. She’s thinking over the longer term, and enjoying challenging herself to take things to the next level. Her recent foray into portrait work has been an example of this: she draws, she critiques herself, she reads up on techniques, she draws again…it just doesn’t have the same look or feeling about it as when she was a child and would just pick up some crayons and paper and draw something on a whim.

The second observation is about her scheduled activities. She hasn’t taken any classes since a clay class last term she begrudgingly did with me. She didn’t enjoy it and doesn’t want to do any more. The problem? She didn’t want to be told what to make, she wanted to create and have someone show her techniques that were relevant to what she wanted to do. She wanted to go into depth about the techniques that interested her. She isn’t getting this from the typical art class for youngsters anymore. She doesn’t need a “teacher”, she needs a mentor. Suddenly I’m looking around and finding myself saying exactly what I’ve heard other Tween homeschooling mums say “There’s nothing out there for him/her!”. A group of us half-joked on Facebook that what we needed was a Tween University. The kids are ready to get more focussed and in-depth with regard to their interests, but they are too young for college and too old for the community centre-type classes offered as “after school” activities (a time when most kids are ready to chill out, not focus on meaningful work or study).

If attending University can be considered a kind of Work, then what we need for Daughter is a job. Not meaningless and unfulfilling labour for the sake of a paycheque, but dedicated time to focus on something she is passionate about and wants to immerse herself in more deeply, in an atmosphere where she will be exposed to others who share her passion. For a child who struggles to socialize just for the sake of socializing, this would provide a much better environment for her in which to make friends. Young kids are often brought together for the sake of playing together and socializing. For the last year we have been attending a weekly get-together with our homeschooling community that is set up for this purpose. A few activities may be present but the main point is to socialize. It isn’t working for either of my kids, but for Daughter I’d assumed it was due to her Asperger-related issues. Recently, after a few good conversations with her, I’ve come to realize that that isn’t the issue. She’s just bored. She is no longer interested in just “playing” with a group of kids. She wants more purpose to her socializing. She wants to meet people who share her interests and passions. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Daughter is becoming a person who prefers to do something interesting and meaningful and have friendships arise as a result of that, rather than go somewhere with the specific intention of “meeting people and making friends”. I see this as a sign of maturation.

One of the things we are actively looking into is finding some art studio time for Daughter. Ideally she would go twice a week for a couple of hours each time to work on a project of her choosing with a mentor who could teach her the techniques she is interested in and go as deep into the subject as she desires. I may have stumbled upon someone here who could fulfill that role, and she also happens to do Art Therapy and works with kids “on the spectrum”. She may therefore be a good fit for Daughter in the role as mentor. I’m meeting with her next week to discuss whether we can make this work.

Ideally I’d love to find a similar situation for science work, her other passion. It’s hard enough to set up a proper laboratory in the home, let alone a home as tiny as ours. I am doubtful of finding anything like that for her, but it’s mulling around in my head and I hope some solutions may present themselves.

Meanwhile Daughter is keeping herself very busy at home and I’m not short of things to report on for my weekly homeschool program accounting. But I know she would enjoy having some regular, scheduled time for more focussed and in-depth study and I am sure she would benefit greatly from some sort of mentor relationship. In discussing this with her she is intrigued and open to the idea. Hopefully over the next few months we’ll be able to put some things in place and then I can report further on what unschooling a Tween looks like.

Categories: natural learning, rethinking education | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “Unschooling the Tween

  1. dawnrachele

    There’s a lady that teaches clay work at Kensington Community Center. She’s often there working away at projects even when their is no class scheduled. She might be into a mentor type arrangement where she and your daughter both work on stuff and she can share technique if required. If your interested, I’d get her number and talk to her directly if I were you, not talk with the Community Center, they might not understand.

  2. dawnrachele

    Sorry, I see that you are on the Island, not in Van…my apologies!

  3. Thanks.Dawn!..(sorry.my.space.bar.has.stopped.working!)….We.have.actually.found.somebody.local…I.will.write.about.this.soon.cheers!

  4. Julia

    This is so interesting to me. I’m new to the idea of unschooling and everyone I know is very opposed to it, so I’m just mucking about learning what I can and it suprises me how little we trust young people. A friend of mine recently told me in a discussion that some people’s brains can’t asses risk until they’re 25 and that’s why teenagers cannot be trusted to make any decissions. And I wonder how our species has survived!

  5. I haven’t visited for a while, but I just wanted to say, “good work”. πŸ™‚

    My daughter is eight, and she goes to school now (long story, as we did formerly homeschool) and I’m amazed at how unintuitive the learning structures are for young people. My daughter is already contemplating “plans” in her own mind, but struggles to find place for those thoughts.

    I’m helping her at home as much as I can, like giving her full control of her own diet. We agree on a set of ingredients which she likes to eat, we set up the ingredients which are easily accessible to her, and so when it comes to meal time, she can make it herself. This is mostly for afternoon tea and for dinner. She told us she wanted to learn to cook and to take more responsibility for her food. This was the best compromise we could think of.

    It also takes the stress of me, having to make a separate meal with something she likes. Because she rarely wants what her dad and I like, LOL.

    At school however, it’s another story. Kids are told what to think, even what to say. Her teacher has taken to teaching her “proper English”. My daughter has a habit of saying, “sure” when she’s listening to instructions. I love it when she says it, because it’s so informal and it shows she’s processing her own way. I personally love to hear “sure”, when I’m giving her instructions, I think it’s adorable, LOL. But no, the teacher wants her to say, “yes, Ms A”, instead of saying, “sure”.

    As I said to my daughter, we don’t have to say, “yes, Ms A”, when we listen to your teacher, and she certainly doesn’t have to say, “yes, Mrs Riley” when she listens to me, LOL. I told my daughter, beware of the hypocrisies in this world, and mind you don’t repeat them. Kids repond much better to involving them in the process, rather than treating them like kids.

    I cannot stop the formalised system from how they expect her to behave, but I can educate my daughter on precisely who she is in that process. That’s why I say “good work”, thinking of your own daughter as an individual. I understand it’s not easy to find the right balance between what the world “allows” and what our children need to express in their development.

    I’ve actually been having my own ideas for my daughter’s “work life” as a tween. I want to help her start a business from home. That is legal if I’m her parent, and put the funds in a bank account in her name. I’m not breaking child labour laws if it’s her “hobby”, and I have my name on the business end. There’s more ways to breaking the mold, than what allows under existing legislation. If you do get a mentor for your daughter, see if there are ways you can market her work. Be her agent.

    I would have loved for my mum to help me in this regard. She was always telling me the sky was the limit for me, but whenever I asked for help, she was busy working to pay the bills. I always said to myself, if I get the opportunity to help my children succeed at what they believe in, I want to be available for strategy, not just pep-talks. By the way, my mum has made herself available now (in her semi retirement years) to help me set up my own business. It was a long time coming, but as she was a single parent, I understand the delay. πŸ˜‰

    So the sky’s the limit for everyone with places to go and things to do – even for tweens with supportive parents. As an artist myself, I understand your daughter’s desires to explore her own subjects. I too, hated to create something purely for the sake of a mark or approval I understood the medium. Surely, the fact I was creating something was enough? I had teachers say I had sublime work, but they had to give me lower grades because I didn’t meet the “subject” outlined. The teachers who saw my abilitity, it truly broke their hearts to give me such poor grades – but the teachers who were after accolades themselves, thought I was merely wasting their time.

    So go with your daughter’s intuition, she knows what she’s doing, bless her. πŸ™‚

  6. FreeLearners

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Chris. Your daughter is lucky to have you!

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