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Unschooling: When kids rule the school

From left to right: June Cutler, Annabella Cutler, Marie Cutler, and Gela Raimondi. The kids are students of unschooling.

It’s that time of year again, when kids are filling their new “Frozen” backpacks with fresh pencils and Fruit Roll-Ups. But for unschoolers, this time of year is no different than January or June.

For those not in the know, unschooling is not the same as homeschooling. The term was coined in the 1970s by John Holt, a scholar of natural learning. Unschoolers follow no curriculum and the children get full reign to choose what they’re interested in learning about. They sometimes learn through travel and everyday life.

“I want my kids to be able to say, ‘Hey, I want to go learn about butterflies!’ I don’t want to sit behind a desk and be taught things that aren’t applicable to them in the real world. I want to learn what I’m passionate about,” says Lake Forest Park’s Stephanie Cutler.

Unhappy with her daughter’s kindergarten experience, Cutler now unschools her three daughters; 9-year-old Marie, 7-year-old Annabella, and 3-year-old June.

“My 9-year-old has been teaching herself how to do makeup,” says Cutler. “She wants to be a makeup artist, a singer, a dancer, and a guitar player. She’s been teaching herself electric guitar off of YouTube videos. There’s nothing specific that they’re interested in studying inside of books right now. It’s all hands-on learning.”

Bella has chosen to study art.

“We don’t really do that much learning,” Bella says. “We just draw, paint, do activities.”

I wondered if parents supplement the children’s interests with math, science, or history lessons.

“History, we’ve got these videos called “Liberty’s Kids” that talk about the Revolutionary War. We do a lot of science experiments. We watch that show “Cosmos,” Neil deGrasse Tyson.”

Unlike Cutler, Gwynn Raimondi hadn’t intended on unschooling her 7-year-old daughter, Gela.

“I tend to like structure and schedule and my daughter is not that person. So we ended up unschooling because I had tried doing at-home curriculum and she said, ‘Uh, no.’ So it was either we can sit here and fight and be in tears every day because I’m trying to get you to learn something or I can let go. And so I let go.”

I asked the moms if there is any structure as far as, when the kids wake up, when they learn, and was met with a chorus of laughter.

“The kids get up when they get up,” says Cutler. “I would rather have their brain have enough rest and be able to process things and not be grumpy, and go to bed when they’re ready. There are times when I’m like, ‘It’s now bedtime. I love you, but you need to go away from me and your dad.’ But they’ll sit up and they’ll read and they’ll learn and they’ll do stuff at night.”

Marie, 9, says she loves unschooling.

“You don’t have to sit in a class for six or seven hours a day and do homework. I used to be super excited about homework for some weird reason. I just like unschooling because it’s really fun. We just get to do, not whatever we want, we don’t get to go out for ice cream every five seconds. But, like, we have road trips. I’ve been to Disneyland five times, I think, and Disney World once or twice.”

So if your kids aren’t interested in math or reading or science, how do they get into college?

“People are so engrained to start in preschool, go all the way through, and you must go to college and it’s not even a choice,” says Cutler. “It’s like an expectation that the parents have for the children. I don’t have any expectations. My goal for my children is that they’re happy and they’re fulfilled. If they earn $30,000 a year and they can live on it and they do something that lights their heart up, that’s what it’s about. It’s not about being in debt $200,000 and then not even finding a job in that industry. It’s about being happy and joyful.”

Although, Cutler and Raimondi say there are unschoolers who attend MIT and Ivy League universities, and they say colleges are seeking out unschoolers because of their out-of-the-box learning styles.

Of course, there is plenty of criticism for unschooling.

“When you’re unschooling, you’re unparenting and you’re neglecting your children,” Raimondi says. “There’s a lot of that sort of talk. While certainly there are parents in the unschooling world who probably neglect their children, there are parents in the schooling world who also neglect their children. And so I don’t think we can say, because we do this, it’s bad.”

Both moms say their lives, and their children’s lives, are happier and less stressful and they hope to never go back to a traditional schooling model.

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