Friday, March 20, 2020

Homeschooling in the Age of COVID-19: Advice from Six Unschooling Parents

We are living in difficult times. Around the world, people’s lives have been upended as everyone struggles to deal with this crisis. And one of those changes has been that suddenly, countless people who never expected to be in such a position are doing some version of homeschooling.

Before I go any further, I’d like to make it clear that this is not what homeschooling normally looks like, not how it’s supposed to be. The “home” bit doesn’t mean that school-free families are used to being chained to their houses, as homeschoolers generally take full advantage of various classes, homeschool co-ops, organized sports, community centers, museums, parks, clubs… And you’d be hard pressed to find a group more broken up over library closures. It’s an isolating time for all of us, most definitely including those who normally don’t go to school.

Photo by David Clarke on Unsplash

But at the same time, there ARE aspects of our current reality that are more familiar to families who practice homeschooling of one sort or another. The no school bit is self-evident, but also spending a great deal of time together as a family, and plenty of unstructured time. 

With that in mind, I hoped it would be helpful to share some thoughts and advice from several different unschooling parents, people who practice self-directed life learning outside of school. There is overlap in what they have to say, but also some interesting divergences, and I hope at least some of their words will resonate with you, will give you ideas or comfort.

It’s a trying time, and I just hope we can all make it through it with as much kindness and calm as possible.

One of the defining characteristics of our current western society is separation. So many families - whether out of choice or necessity - spend the better part of our days separated from each other.

Often, with separation comes disconnection.

This prescribed physical/social distancing has gifted us with togetherness. But togetherness, when we’re used to separation, isn’t always easy. So we need the other C - compassion, as we learn to be together, to find a common rhythm as we dance around and with each other.

So dance! Dance and delight in being with your children. Forget the online lessons and the infinite lists of activities that sustains continued separation and embrace connection instead.

These lists have value. As tools. Not goals.

Make your own lists. Lists of the different ways to build connection in your family.

There are as many ways to build connection as there are people. Connection looks like conversations, telling jokes, making favourite foods, sharing dreams and secrets, playing fantasy games, creating, sitting in silence, sitting in togetherness and sitting in solitude. Connection looks like finding the shared language for you all to advocate for you needs, for your mental and spiritual health. But mostly connection comes when we toss judgement out the front door and expectations out the back door and we just be with our children and embrace what emerges.

Zakiyya Ismail, parent of three unschooling kids aged 21, 20 and 13. You can find her on her website Growing Minds, on Twitter and on Instagram.

Photo by Johnny Wall on Unsplash

1. Relax. I know it is tempting to replicate school at home, but I would suggest parents find their own rhythm and groove as a family. The coronavirus has put us in uncharted territory, and we honestly do not know what tomorrow will bring. This uncertainty gives us the opportunity to disconnect from the ways school does things and do things in the way that’s most beneficial to our individual children.

2. Enjoy them. What do you enjoy doing with your children? Making a special recipe? Playing video games? Having conversations? Drawing pictures? Reading together? Whatever you like doing with them, do more of it now. Your bonds will be strengthened through the time you spend with them. Play with them and let them play. Let them play more than you think they should. Children learn a vast amount through play. Make time to laugh with your kids. It won’t just help you feel more connected to each other, it will also help ease their anxiety during this confusing time.

3. Let them learn through life. Children are remarkably resilient, and they understand far more than adults usually give them credit for. Right now, they have a freedom they normally only have during summer vacation. Now is the chance to let them be curious and self-directed in their education.

Finally, my advice to unexpecting homeschool parents is to contemplate how you want this time to be remembered. Maya Angelou famously said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Your children will forget the content of the worksheet packets and virtual learning websites they had to do during their homeschooling experience, but they will not forget how it felt being home with their family during this time. They will remember how their parents responded to the situation because they are watching you and learning from you how to deal when things are unpredictable.

Tiersa McQueen, parent of four unschoolers aged 14, 12, and 9 year old twins. You can find her on Twitter.


This pandemic is really a mirror showing us all the inequitable facets of our society, including this part where it has become acceptable for adults to wield control and power over children. It’s not a judgment on anyone as a person but an important social commentary I needed to give because if anything good should come from this, it’s that we can use this opportunity to reflect on all of the things this crisis is shining a light on. Only then can we start creating something new.

If you can sit with the discomfort you feel from all of that, here’s my unpopular advice:

Just let your kids play.

Yep, just let them play! It’s already a stressful time for all. Skip the strict Coronavirus schedule I see being shared left and right among parent groups. Please! Don’t replicate school at home.

Don’t squander this opportunity to give your kids unstructured time and space to just be.

Right now, your kids may not know what to do with all that freedom, especially the ones who have been institutionalized longer. Your kids are used to having a schedule and having someone else decide what they should spend their time doing.

So give them this gift of freedom.

Give your kids the gift to just play, to explore what they would do with this newfound spaciousness, discover a new hobby, find things you would truly want to do with them together. Let them direct their day. Let them be bored. Boredom is such a gift. It is amazing what emerges out of boredom.

If complete freedom to let kids just be gives you high anxiety, then create flexible and loose rhythms that feel good for everyone.

Do life with them.

Trust that your kids are learning all the time.

And here is the most radical idea of all: Let them CHOOSE.

Vina Joy Duran, parent of two unschooling kids aged 11 and 4. Vina kindly allowed me to share this excerpted/edited version of a longer post that she published on Facebook.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

These are uncertain times. A lot of people are scrambling trying to figure out childcare, or where their next paycheck is coming from. If you do find yourself with the opportunity to suddenly be at home with your kids, be thankful! It is an opportunity not available to many. While your child’s school may be sending home assignments, or switching over to virtual classes, your job is to just enjoy. Treat it like a vacation. Enjoy having your kids around. Enjoy getting to spend this one and one time with them. Enjoy having this brief moment of time that you otherwise wouldn’t have gotten. Take this time to connect with them. Watch them play their favorite video games (and ask lots of questions!), read with them, bake with them, play board games, do crafts, make a big batch of popcorn and watch a movie, play music together, let them teach you their favorite Tik Tok dances, make silly videos and take lots of selfies. Talk to them about their lives and their friends and their classes. Assuage any feelings of fear or uncertainty they may have. Remind them that they are safe. Get to know them on a whole new level. Meet them where they’re at. Shift your focus to one of gratitude rather than one of panic. This unexpected time with your kids is a blessing, not a penalty. Take this time to truly see your kids, to truly appreciate and enjoy them, and do not worry about what they may be “missing” in school. This is a strange and confusing time in their lives, and what they’ll be getting from you, the person they trust more than anyone in the world, is so much more valuable than anything they could be learning at school.

Jennifer Vogel McGrail, parent of four unschoolers aged 23, 19, 15, and 12, and author of the blog The Path Less Taken.

Most of us have been conditioned to compartmentalize the lives of adults and children. Adults usually go off to do adultish things, children go off to do childish things, and never the twain shall meet except during the few hours of chaos before bedtime. Adults know how to control children, entertain children, “educate” children, and keep children occupied, but we really don’t know how to simply live life with children without doing things to them.

The situation with COVID-19 is scary and overwhelming, but it can also be an opportunity for us to practice being with children in ways that honor their agency, boundaries, individuality, interests, and needs…as well as our own.

Here are some thoughts about how we can begin practicing BEING WITH rather than DOING TO:

Connect. Don’t worry too much about academics. In these uncertain times, the last thing that matters is whether or not our child can add fractions! Instead, make relationship and connection our goal over “productivity.” Hold space for all the big emotions that may arise.

Respect their autonomy. Staying emotionally connected doesn’t mean we need to be attached at the hip. In fact, it can mean that we are more comfortable doing things independently because we trust each other. Instead of trying to micromanage and schedule every minute, give children the freedom to decide and self-direct their day. Support them if they need ideas or structure, but avoid coercion and ultimatums.

Communicate boundaries. Have a family meeting about how to keep everyone safe and how to get everyone’s needs met. Brainstorm together about win-win solutions so that kids and adults both feel valued and respected. How can the kids experiment with papier-mâché without making a huge mess that you’ll have to clean up? How can you have peace and quiet for your online meeting when the kids want to play Nerf tag in the house? When we as the adults are willing to compromise and listen to our kids, they’re usually willing to do the same.

It is a radical paradigm shift to learn how to have relationships with children that are based on collaboration and connection rather than coercion. Now is as good a time as any to begin practicing.

Iris Chen, parent of two unschooling children aged 12 and 10 and author of the blog Untigering.

Photo by Eye for Ebony on Unsplash

Besides the economic and practical adjustments that affect us all, the thing I'm seeing most schooling parents and carers worry about is their children being bored, or their children "falling behind" on schoolwork.

I see a lot of unschoolers responding with a version of, "don't worry, just chill out, take time to relax" and of course as lifelong unschoolers I know what is meant by that. My family has been “homebound” in that sense for almost twenty years - and we've never been "bored" nor fallen "behind"! But the fact is, schooling families are used to schooling concepts and attendant lifestyle and worldviews. Parents and children are experiencing a lot of anxiety right now and many adults won't be able to confidently switch to an unschooling mindset under this kind of strain.

Confidence is key, and confidence can be in short supply in times like this. My suggestion would be for parents to practice self-care, tune into the news for only short durations (then tune back out!), and employ whatever healthy behaviors best care for their bodies and soothe their anxiety. As a parent, it has benefitted me a great deal to care for myself with a dedicated fierceness so I wasn't constantly transmitting my anxiety to my children. We can leave our emotional processing needs for the most part to our safe grownup friends, our support groups, our therapists, and our spiritual mentors. Let's take care of ourselves so we can care for our children.

Most children are connected online and likely have some great communities and friendships to bolster them at this time. The things children and teens need most is a safe, nurturing, connected, and calm home. What can we do to move things in that direction? It's never too early, or too late, to make those kinds of changes.

Kelly Hogaboom, parent of two unschoolers aged 16 and 18, as well as clothier and designer at Bespoke Hogaboom.

Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash