Integrated Unschooling, Part I

As promised from a post two weeks ago, here’s how we put it all together:

Our homeschool is a blend of Classical ideals, Unschooling freedom, and Montessori wisdom.  The older each child gets, the more freedom of choice they have in both selection of topics for learning, and the responsibility of taking their learning in hand.  While I have my own ideas of what a person ought to know, the end goal of our homeschooling journey for each child is to become a well-rounded, responsible adult who has a sense of their identity, a passion, and the tools necessary to follow that passion.  (I also insist they be kind, giving, and work toward patience with themselves and others.)

Home Spun Juggling Comic

In the early years, things are more structured when learning in that I often chose the topic of study, set out the materials, and guide in the ways one uses those materials.  This is especially true in practical skills (e.g. tying shoes, pouring from a pitcher, etc.) and less so in artistic or scientific explorations (e.g. watercolor painting, nature study).


Cuisinaire rods to the rescue!

By age seven, I believe it best to incorporate more mathematics in the physical form of helping cook, measure, etc. (if the child isn’t already) to teach about weight, volume, fractions and more, and help in other practical matters like measuring a piece of furniture or estimating distance for a game.  Counting and skip counting games are fun with food or toys or just while walking (or skipping). Once this is picked up, I’m a huge fan of introducing a transitional practical object like cuisinaire rods before attempting to dive into the abstract aspects of maths: formulas, written numerals, etc.

Any time you take on a project that involves math, make certain your child is helping you solve those equations. Need to measure a bookshelf to see if it will fit in an area of a room?  Need to bake a cake and measure out ingredients?  Need to figure out your 20% tip on a meal?  Ask your child to give a hand and see if you get the same answer.  All math up through Algebra has practical applications throughout life, no matter what field of study your child pursues in adolescence and adulthood.

Our favorite online resources include Khan Academy, Doodling in Math Class, and _____.

As for the upper level mathematics like Physics, Calculus, and Linear Algebra? They’re good subjects to touch on, even if you don’t have a math genius living in your home.  While my partner takes on the role of teacher for upper level maths and physics (and he’s a lecturer, gods help us), I was blessed with a keen mathematical brain; though I chose not to continue beyond analysis and pre-Calculus, I know I have a knack for it if I want to pursue it later.  Not everyone, though is so blessed, as I’ve heard many times.

Khan Academy is one way to help your child explore higher maths you’re not comfortable teaching, but there are plenty of books out there.  The key is finding what works for your child. Also, talking to college and university professors, while sometimes unnerving to us introverts, can help in establishing a good game plan for selecting curricula appropriate for your child’s level of learning (once they reach high school materials).


English is a looser subject (and as a writer, close to my heart).  Any time we read to a child, they read to themselves, or explore words in any capacity, they’re learning spelling, grammar, diction, etc. Whether my children are reading their assigned fiction or delving through a non-fiction book on a topic that interests them, they’ll be coming across new vocabulary, being exposed to new ideas and perspectives, and offered a variety of writing styles to compare or learn from.

I’ve written extensively about the Reading Selections literary analysis group I ran for a few years, which contained short stories, essays, transcribed speeches, poetry, news, and more, often on a theme.  Each month, I gave my kids about five to ten readings to read through (twice), think about, and come up with a project to represent one or more of the pieces.  One year, I focused heavily on essays, and taught different essay writing styles, and another year, we looked at poetry styles.  I’ve held impromptu spelling bees using grade-specific vocabulary from a variety of online sources, keep a number of grammar books around (including both Elements of Style by Strunk & White, Eats, Shoots, & Leaves, and Spunk and Biteplus a few of the best grammar and formatting books I picked up in colleges.

Grammar Binder for homeschooling. Warning: Humor within

Grammar Binder for homeschooling. Warning: Humor within

Then there’s the BINDER.  It isn’t very full, but I made it so we can keep adding to it. It currently holds five divided sections: Structure, Punctuation, Abbreviations, Spelling, Other Rules, and each section holds print outs of humorous online grammar guides meant to help anyone remember dry rules.  I printed pages from The Oatmeal, Bob the Angry Flower, and Hyperbole and a Half to name a few. Ultimately, if your child is reading voraciously in any subject and in any form, s/he’s going to pick up on grammar, sentence structure, punctuation, vocabulary, and more.  Just make sure you offer a variety of excellent forms of writing, not just the latest pulp, and this includes the best comics and graphic novels.  Exposure to diversity, like many things in life, is key here.

Oh, and another quick note: if you can convince them it’s fun, get your kids to learn Latin and Greek by middle school.  If they resist, then check out books that explain Latin and Greek roots in English so they at least can start seeing the connections between older languages and modern ones, and help figure out what new vocabulary means without a dictionary.  Both languages helped contribute to modern English, though as we all know:


The first thing we do: get outside. We go for hikes or explore our backyard.  We head to parks and nature preserves and conservatories. We go to the Pacific Science Center and MOHAI and other wonderful places of learning.

Example of a Nature Journal

Nature walks with science journals, camera phones, and binoculars. Geocaching for kids who are interested. Hiking through local trails, spending time at local beaches, and taking trips to national forests.  Binoculars are not only good for taking in sights with gorgeous views or birdwatching, they’re also far more useful for astronomy for amateurs (or so says my step-dad who’s an avid amateur astronomer … of course, he has access to a huge observatory in Germany and has to hang from the telescope like Tarzan to move it to where he wants it).

We use plant and tree guides, herbalism books, sustainable farming books, used books on biology and chemistry from local university bookstores and the library, science kits, science experiments at home books, and more.

BBC Connections with James Burke

While we like reading about the sciences in books and watching videos about science and technology (Oh, Connections how we love thee), science, like art, requires getting your hands dirty.  There’s a reason college science courses have labs — even online classes have field trips and meetings occasionally to get students participating in science.  It’s the best way to learn anything, but with subjects like sciences, arts, writing, and technology, it’s actually exploring in a hands-on way that’ll stay with a child forever.  And the sciences, arts, and history go so well together, we often blend them in our studies.  A nature study can turn into an art project, an art project can use scientific principles, and both relate to the history and development of ideas over time.  It’s all integrated (there’s math and writing in there, too, but honestly, they’re in almost everything we do in homeschooling because they’re intrinsic to human culture and life: they’re both languages).


This is nothing compared to the contents of the yarn box.

Since both my daughter and I are rather creative individuals, art seeps into almost everything.  Her Reading Selections projects were often full of drawings, paintings, collages, 3D objects, etc. Discussions about science lead to design principles and the artistry of scientific masters.  Our house is filled to the brim with drawing and colored pencils, crayons, pastels, watercolors, acrylic paints, oil paints, soy paints, construction paper, scissors, yarn, fabric, and so on.  I’ve had to install policies about what supplies we can bring into the house depending on how much we’ve actually used (my own moratorium on yarn simply can’t be denied because there’s no room left in the yarn box for more … until I actually knit something).

30,000 Years of Art, a hefty tome of human art through history

We also have art books, art history books, photography books, how to guides, comics, graphic novels, manga, and more art prints than we have wall space to hang it.

And it’s not just visual arts filling our house.  We have a section of the living room I call the “Creative Suite.”  It’s full of music books, an upright piano, and an overflowing box of percussion instruments.  We had string instruments as well: 3 guitars (two classical, one electric) and a Celtic harp until someone entered our home and stole them away (it wouldn’t be such a huge deal, except one of the guitars was my mother’s since she was 16 and filled with all her professional and family negatives).  We play instruments, hold drum circles, sing, dance, and play piano.

I did mention dance, right?  Because I was a dancer.  For eight years, the last three of them spent as a student choreographer.  It was my life.  30 hours of practice or more a week for three years.  Though I wasn’t able to continue at my former pace or pursue the dream I had of becoming a professional choreographer, my love of dance has continued and been passed on to my children.  My son comes up with funny little dances, and my daughter is taking ballroom lessons at her request.

We also do film critiques, watch films from the classics to documentaries to the B-movies that give us belly laughs.  We watch videos from artists around the world, whether performance artists, musicians, dancers, or something else entirely.  It’s drawn in, absorbed, and used as inspiration to create our own art.  I teach my children Neil Gaiman’s guiding words, “Make good art.”

Isadora Duncan dancing on the waves

[More to come in a few weeks.  Thanks for reading thus far.]


One thought on “Integrated Unschooling, Part I

  1. Pingback: Integrated Homeschooling, Part II | Willow and Birch

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