Unschooling movement takes root

Seven-year-old Sean Simonsen directs his own learning. The child of avid “unschoolers” Dave and Maggie Simonsen, Sean doesn’t attend traditional school but instead lets his own interests lead him to learning the same skills any other kid would.

Sean wakes up in the morning and goes to work. He spends a large portion of the day in a virtual underground mine, hoping to strike a bounty of coal or iron ore. This lifestyle began when he built his first house, which has now expanded to a full village with side businesses, such as a bank and art gallery, to keep the citizens happy. He tends to his gardens and makes sure his pets and property are maintained, but he can’t lose sight of the ultimate goal – expanding his empire. Sean is 7.

Maggie and Dave Simonsen and their son are part of a movement known as “unschooling,” where instead of spending hours a day behind a school desk, Sean learns at his own pace and with his own resources at home.

There’s no time or space limit on where the learning happens; some lessons come during a documentary late at night as the family sits around the television or at the store when the family’s grocery budget is being calculated.

Most important to the Simonsens is the family staying together as a unit.

Unschooling is a concept that has been around since the 1970s, but with the evolution of the Internet, it’s now widely researched and well known as an alternative form of homeschooling.

The student doesn’t sit down for lessons, have worksheets to complete or homework; rather the student’s learning experiences come in the form of day-to-day activities and interests.

Right now, for Sean, the learning revolves around the popular game Minecraft.

The video game, a child of the Lego franchise, allows the player to mine into the ground and find resources, which are then used to build tools and equipment in order to expand the virtual world.

Months in, Sean’s villages include mines, villagers, houses, skyscrapers and businesses.  

Through the game, Sean has learned basic math, the value of resources and some sight-reading.

“The way he’ll learn to read and phonics is he’ll ask how to spell a word to look up that block and I’ll give him the first couple of letters. So by doing that, he’s learning letter-sound combinations, like ‘tr’ for tree, and once he types that in, the rest of the word will come up and he learns,” she said. “One of the keys to what we’re doing here is trusting the process that if you turn the child loose and let them follow their interests, they’ll learn what they need to know to do what they want to do.”

The theory is essentially starting with the big picture, such as building an online empire, and learning the little skills and tricks along the way to get there, rather than building up to the goal the other way around.

“We don’t go by curriculum or spend a specified time homeschooling,” she said. “A lot of families do, they have a designated place and time, but for us the whole world is our school, the whole house is our learning zone.”

An example day, she said, consisted of reading several chapters of “Old Yeller” in the morning, followed by picking up some milk from the family’s cow share, grocery shopping and an afternoon of Minecraft before Dave got home from work and the family focused on dinner and quality time.

So far, all of what Sean has learned has stemmed from a particular interest-based activity, whether that be a college lecture on dinosaurs, a museum visit or a television series on the history of guns.

“Where his interests are is where we saturate,” Simonsen said. “A lot of people have fears about homeschooling, and one of the things they fear is that kids aren’t going to learn math or reading or writing or whatnot and for some people they sit down and have the kids do drills and lessons.

“For me, anytime I’ve ever tried to force Sean to do anything, he loses interest and doesn’t want to do it, but if I let him follow his own path, he wants to learn to do things so he’s able to do what he wants to do.”

As far as Wyoming state law is concerned, at Sean’s age, there are very few requirements.

Maggie must submit a letter of intent each year to homeschool and needs to show that the student is under a “basic educational program” that provides a sequentially progressive curriculum that includes reading, writing, mathematics, civics, history, literature and science.

A minimum of 175 days attendance is required each year, and as long as the students are educated in some way through their 16th birthday, there is no problem.

For Simonsen, cultivating her child as a member of society is important, and she will continue working with wherever his interests take him.

“I feel he may not be reading at the same level in time as other kids in school, but I figure by the time he’s 9 or 10, he will have learned what he needs to learn to be a good reader,” she said. “What I’ve seen statistically is that kids who are allowed to learn to read on their own become avid readers when they do, and they become veracious at it. … For me, it’s an element of trust in the process that he’ll learn.”

The decision to homeschool was a big one for Maggie Simonsen.

It was a choice to slow down on a career, to change the way she thought about education and to be constantly engaged with her child, where other parents get a break during school hours.

“I used to lack the confidence that he will learn what he needs to. … He doesn’t know what other kids his age know, for instance. There are still some letters he struggles with, and in first grade, you’ve got to know the alphabet,” she said. “Yet the knowledge he has conceptually and vocabulary-wise and content-wise is far beyond what a lot of those kids know.”

When Sean was born, his father had two older children he had put through the traditional schooling system.

Dave was once a fifth-grade elementary teacher, and both he and Maggie have master’s degrees and a long history in formal education.

They are not radically religious or vehemently against institutional schooling, nor do they fit into any other homeschooling stereotypes.

“My goal is to put a face on unschooling that says we’re everyday people who do everyday things. … There are those people who do it so they can control the content of what their child is exposed to religion-wise. There are those people that are preppers and convinced the world’s going to come down on them. … But for our part, we’re probably the least structured as far as the day goes. We don’t worry about him having formal lessons, and we try our best to treat him as a partner. I’m not trying to say what we’re doing is the right way, but for us it’s the right way and what we feel is right for our child,” Maggie said.

Socialization is another big concern and misconception about homeschoolers, Maggie said.

“After you’ve been homeschooling for a while, you laugh because you’re so used to it being everyone’s No. 1 concern,” she said. “But to homeschoolers, the school setting is not real life. With us, he’s learning from all ages, seeing how the real world operates. He’s seeing me pay bills; he’s seeing me go to pay for groceries, clean house; and he’s seeing what needs to be done.”

Sean is also involved in a number of extracurricular activities in the community, one of the best perks to raising a homeschooled child in Buffalo, Simonsen said.

He’s done T-ball and martial arts. He attends the Boys & Girls Club of the Big Horns and a program run by the Jim Gatchell Museum for homeschooled students. He is also a member of the Jr. First Lego League.

These activities are all driven by Sean’s interests though, rather than an effort to socialize him, but they give him the opportunity to see interactions he may not experience at home.

In recent months, Maggie’s educational strategy led to contact with a Radford University researcher who is studying the unschooling movement and, in particular, whether students lack diversity exposure through the process.

When Sean enters his teenage years and the work force, Maggie Simonsen said, she will not be concerned about his ability to excel and, in fact, she expects it.

Through her research, she said, she’s found data by Peter Gray, who has been featured in “Psychology Today,” who followed homeschoolers into their careers and found they’re widely sought-after due to their free-thinking ability and self-directed learning style.

“(At age three, Sean) was fascinated with cars, which is typical for a toddler, then it became paleontology and dinosaurs and rocks, then to the Legos and Minecraft, now we’re in this boyish stage of guns and battles,” she said. “He’s only 7 and look what we’ve covered. He’s been to tons of museums and dug fossils and had an online college course and mastered a video game. As far as I’m concerned, by the time he’s 15, who knows what he’s going to be doing, but I have a feeling it’s going to be incredible.”

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