If you read about homeschooling and unschooling long enough, you’ll inevitably see cookie baking used as an example of natural learning.
Some people will describe it as an example of unschooling, and it can be. Other people say things like, “We use curriculum but do some unschooling” (and then talk about cookie baking). Or they’ll talk about using cookie baking instead of curriculum, but you can tell they still haven’t really “gotten” unschooling, because they try to turn even a fun thing like cookie baking into a lesson. Or they’re really concerned that their kids aren’t doing enough math, so they’ll force (or “strongly suggest”) that they bake more cookies so they “learn fractions”. Or they’re really concerned that their kids don’t read enough, so they make them research cookie recipes themselves, give Mom a summary of the recipe reviews, and look up any words they don’t know.
Examples like this can confuse people about what Unschooling actually is.
Because when you turn what could be a fun family bonding activity into a “teaching opportunity”, it stops being unschooling. When you force someone to do an activity you think that they should want to do because you consider it to be fun and “educational”, it stops being Unschooling.
It can be a beautiful example of Unschooling, or it can be one of those examples where Unschoolers shake their heads and say, “no, I know your lesson was more natural than what you usually do, and your kids enjoyed it more, and I know it was curriculum-free, but it wasn’t Unschooling. You’re getting warmer, but you’re not quite there yet.
It’s hard to describe why it isn’t sometimes, because it involves a deep knowing and trusting that learning will happen without teaching. It involves forgetting almost everything you ever learned about learning from school and school-like programs. But once you have the “feel” of Unschooling, it’s easy to recognize what isn’t Unschooling.
Here are two examples. One is pure Unschooling. The other is not unschooling. Can you “feel” the difference?
Yesterday, I baked Christmas cookies with my son. He had specifically requested gingerbread. While we worked, we discussed a conversation he had with someone. The person had used a word he wasn’t familiar with, and he asked if I knew what it meant. We not only discussed the meaning of the word, but why the person might have used it in the context she did.
My other son was in the room, and they continued the conversation without me for awhile, discussing the conversation from the perspective of an article about a video game I knew nothing about.
We doubled the cookie recipe, something we have done many times throughout the years. When you double 1/4 to 1/2 so many times throughout your life, it eventually happens without much thought.
My other son was weighing a box for something we had sold on eBay. “I should round 2 lbs 3 oz up to 3 lbs, right?” he said.
“Yes,” I said, as I cut out out more gingerbread.
One gingerbread man’s head was partially removed, and I joked that he had a lobotomy. We discussed what a lobotomy is. Another gingerbread man’s head completely came off, and I put it on his hand. We joked that these are supposed to be Christmas cookies, not Halloween cookies, and referenced The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
They talked about something Japanese (they’ve been very into Japan lately), and I said, “Hey, that reminds me. The audio book I was listening to said that the Japanese have a word that we don’t have an equivalent word for: kamiwaza, when a human acts like a mythological god. “Yes,” one of them said, “the Japanese have a lot of words like that.” And he gave me an example.
We continued discussing interesting things and using numbers naturally as we did an activity together.
Yesterday, my kids learned naturally through cookie baking. I made them look up a recipe, made them read the reviews, and had them look up words they don’t know. We doubled the recipe, so I had them do math to show how the fractions double.
Which example is Unschooling? If you chose the first one, you are correct.
But did you *feel* the difference? In the Unschooling example, learning happened through conversation and math concepts that flowed naturally because everyone involved lived a full, interesting life that they shared with each other. It was easy. Parents and children were partners. No one was lorded their authority over another, *making them* research a recipe and *having them* look up words they don’t know. It was interesting people doing an interesting thing, respectfully and consensually. The other example *felt like* school at home. The only choice was between the parent’s preferred activity or another activity that the parent judged to be “educational” enough. They didn’t use a curriculum, but they might as well have.
If such a thing as school didn’t exist, which of the two examples would you be following? That’s the one that’s unschooling.