I’m always inspired by how well permaculture principles fit into our unschooled life, my experiences with my youngest 2 daughters learning to read are no exception.
My girls are what most people would call ‘late readers’. At 9 and 11 they have only really started decoding the English language in the last couple of years. The very first principle of permaculture is “Observe and Interact” if designing a garden you would stop, watch what was going on and slowly interact allowing time to observe the impact of your interaction. Learning through unschooling isn’t much different, observing where my kids are at, taking a chance to stop, breath, watch some more, offering help when it is needed and knowing when to back off if it isn’t, is one of the most important steps of unschool facilitation and for me parenting in general.
We skirt the “Edges and Margins” of education, choosing not to ‘take the well beaten path’ of the school system and doing so can be scary. The risks are high, and as parents who mostly went to school, we were taught a lot about teaching and learning that unschooling requires us to unlearn or at least question. It takes time and lots of persistence. Unschooling is a long term commitment, the goal often isn’t what is learnt rather, knowing how to learn and holding sacred our intrinsic love of learning and curiosity.
Having never experienced how unschooled children learn to read (my older kids all either began to learn or learned to read entirely at school), I had more then just ‘some moments of concern’ thinking the girls might never read. A lack of interest in learning the skill seemed to go on forever, more then once I went through the motions, of questioning my beliefs, as it seems every unschooler does at some point. “Does unschooling really work? Can you really teach yourself anything you want? Do we actually need a teacher or authority to teach us? Is our natural curiosity enough? Am I too laxed, not pushing enough? Is waiting, letting them go at their own pace the best way?” And the comparison “all the ‘other’ kids are reading now, am I setting my kids up to fail?”
It’s apparent to me, that if a skill such as reading is part of our daily life the likelihood of my girls never reading is slim. This has certainly been the experience of many unschoolers who pioneered the unschooling philosophy. I love getting ‘lost’ in a good book and as such reading and writing are a big part of our lives. Our walls are lined with books of all sorts on all kinds of topics, pens and paper are always easily accessible, as are the many other resources scattered throughout our home. This allows us to integrate learning into our daily lives rather then segregating learning into times, spaces and subjects, making our life and learning very much entwined. When immersed in such a wide array literature it’s almost impossible to not learn to read.
While I processed my worry, researched some more and chatted with unschooling friends, my girls kept living. I provided as many different resources and experiences as I possibly could. We cooked, created, painted, drew, sculpted, talked a LOT, made up songs and stories, watched documentaries, youtube videos and movies, listened to podcasts, visited museums, art galleries, libraries, the theatre, played board games and spent lots of time outdoors. We gardened, experimented, hung out with friends, explored, played and lived life as curiously as possible. “Using and valuing diversity” rather than putting a singular focus on learning to read.
Even without the ability to read the girls knowledge continued to grow, their understanding of the world around them extended in it’s own organic way. Topics that had sparked interest would be researched in many ways and an interest in reading and writing slowly but surely grew. What I began to realize is that reading and writing are just a tool for learning, an important tool but just one of many many ways to learn.
As the girls interest in reading grew, they began “Designing from pattern to detail” they continued to be read too, played word games, read signs, wrote short notes “No boys allowed” and “I love you”. The notes got more complicated, requests were made to write letters to the government about whatever issue it was they felt passionate about. Spelling and phonics got questioned, “Why does that letter sound different?” “What noise do these letters make?” “How come those words sound the same but have different meanings?” “How do you pronounce this word?” “Is there another word for …?”. In “Small and Slow” increments the girls began decoding the English language in their own way.
Then just like that almost as if overnight the sight word flash cards the girls occasionally pulled out were all known. A child peeped over my shoulder and read out loud a text I was sending, another came out of her room excitedly declaring she could read a book on her own. Quickly the words got harder, the notes longer and all the while the girls kept learning with another tool in their toolkit and a whole lot of confidence.