Disposable Checklists for Unschoolers

by Sandra Dodd

Beginning homeschoolers are often afraid. Sometimes they homeschool for a while, and a curriculum keeps the fear to a manageable level. Sometimes a curriculum is a workable alternative to school for a family. For some it is not. Some of those give up and the kids go back to school. Some give up the curriculum and move toward unschooling.

Beginning unschoolers are often afraid. Without the touchstone of a schedule and a list, they don't know how they will see progress, or how they will recognize "sufficient effort" on the part of children or parents.

For some people, treating their first months of unschooling as summer vacation, or a month or two of Saturdays is sufficient, but some people schedule even their Saturdays and vacations. "Just hang out with your kids" sounds torturous to them, and may be more frightening than abandoning public school was.

Here, then, are some possible replacement checklists and scheduling aids for those who truly want to unschool but who can't breathe well or sleep soundly without a plan.

Sink-Like-a-Stone Method: Instead of skimming the surface of a subject or interest, drop anchor there for a while. If someone is interested in chess, mess with chess. Not just the game, but the structure and history of tournaments. How do chess clocks work? What is the history of the names and shapes of the playing pieces? What other board games are also traditional and which are older than chess? If you're near a games shop or a fancy gift shop, wander by and look at different chess sets on display. It will be like a teeny chess museum. The interest will either increase or burn out—don't push it past the child's interest.

When someone understands the depth and breadth of one subject, he will know that any other subject has breadth and depth.

Universe-in-a-Drop-of-Water Method: Can one intense interest come to represent or lead to all others? A mom once complained that her son was interested in nothing but World War II. There are college professors and historians who are interested in nothing but World War II. It can become a life's work. But even a passing interest can touch just about everything—geography, politics, the history and current events of Europe and parts of the Pacific, social history of the 20th century in the United States, military technology, tactics, recruitment and propaganda, poster art/production/distribution, advances in communications, transport of troops and food and supplies, espionage, prejudices, internment camps, segregation, patriotism, music, uniforms, insignia, religion....

When someone really understands one war, he can easily understand another, because he will have all the framework and questions in his mind. When he understands how countries are born, invaded, and how a government can die out, he understands truths about all nations and civilizations.

But there may be no overriding interest like chess or WWII in a child's life yet, and might rarely be. So then where do parents go with their fearful unschooling energy?

Here are some checklists to try. Mix and match them. Use them as main ingredients or as spices or occasional garnishes. Take those you like, and leave the rest.


The obvious senses are sight and sound. Pictures of Japan and a recording of koto music might be considered sufficient for school. But how much more gloriously can you round that out when you have access to all kinds of real-world resources? Add taste, smell and touch. The kids don't need to know there was a checklist, but for the parents, a trip to a restaurant or an Asian market or gift shop might help the parent complete their secret framework.

How long should a five-senses checklist take to finish? Since unschooling operates in the real world, timing it to an hour or a week or six weeks is artificial. No hurry to "complete the set" on something. Smelling an elephant might need to wait for a trip to a zoo or circus, or you might want to just avoid that particular scent sensation altogether.


A smaller list with a larger effect is to consider the past, present and future of a topic or item. "Ancient Egypt" is sometimes considered in a glossed-over, snapshot kind of way, but even that spans thousands of years. What was in the Nile Valley before the civilizations we know about? What's there now? What might be there someday? These things can be brought up casually, without appearing to be the checklist they are.

When were the first electric guitars made? What's better about new ones than those made forty years ago? What might be the future of electric guitars?


Lists are patterns. Lists can take the form of grids, and so a pattern-loving parent might use the globe or a map as a checklist. Where are the fewest traffic lights in your state? This came up at our house last month—we heard that Harding County, in northeastern New Mexico, has not one single traffic light. So we looked on road maps, and population maps, and couldn't help but see which counties have lots of towns and highway intersections. We thought there might be other states that have a county with no signals, or maybe more than one county. Some states probably don't. Some states don't even have counties!

Which continents have the most traffic signals? Butterflies? Poisonous spiders? Which have the least, or none? If the Nile Valley is the site of the oldest advanced civilization in its region, where are the oldest known civilizations on other continents? What is the oldest continuously inhabited spot near you? In your state? In another country you've been to or dreamed of seeing? The histories of Constantinople, Rome, Paris and London are easily accessible and illuminating. What geographical factors caused people to settle there so long ago? What did Alexander the Great find when he marched east?


What aspect of some particular subject involves objective truth? What is folklore or mythology? What literature or fantasy has come about based on that subject or item? Consider dragons, or India, or snakes, or rainbows. Checklist Abe Lincoln, the discovery of fire, or the depths of Lake Superior. Plot WWII, Japan, electric guitars, or Egypt.

A professor once told me in all seriousness that the universe is as infinite inside our heads as it is outside. I thought he was goofy. But as I've gotten older and my personal model of the universe has continued to expand, I've come to understand what he meant. Inside, each of us is building an internal "map" or grid of information. The more bits and pieces we have, the easier it is to connect them. School tries to build the same structure in all students, or at least tries to supply them with a set of matching parts sufficient to build a rudimentary model of the universe, but each student ends up creating and working off his own map.

Unschooling allows free use of any and all bits of information, not just school's small set. A grid based first on cartoon characters or the history of ice skating can be expanded just as well as one built on a second-grade version of the discovery of North America and the made-up characters in some beginning-reader series. If the goal is to know everything, and if each person's internal "universe" is unique, then the order in which the information is acquired isn't as important as the ease and joy with which it is absorbed.

The time will come in your unschooling when you will forget to use checklists, but it won't matter. The child's internal grid will already have given them the need to know what things feel, smell and taste, and what they used to be or will be, and whether it's different in other places. Connections will continue to be made throughout their lives. The universe inside will grow larger and the universe outside will become clearer with every new experience.

Sandra Dodd
Summer 2002

This article is was also online at Home Education Magazine's site, but by putting it here I could add commentary received from others.

Commentary and further discussion:

By Robin Thomas on Tuesday, October 1, 2002 - 12:15 pm:
I am new to the idea/approach of unschooling. I have 3 children, the middle son is handicapped. (He has Williams Syndrome and, tho almost 9 is on about a 5 yr old level). We have homeschooled 3 years now using mostly PT/OT/Speech and selfhelp skills as our basic "musts" and then adding unit studies he seems interested in for fun.... He is learning to read some by sight words as phonics has never worked iwth him.

In my learning about unschooling (which I admit to just not getting my toes wet in), I have been reading the Colfax's books, the Unschooling Handbook by Mary Griffith, and back issues of Home Education Magazine.

One recent (well, back issue - but recent to me :D) article by Sandra Dodd was entitled Disposable Checklists and was about how some schoolers feel more comfortable bridging the curriculum to unschooling gap with some temporary idea joggers like total emersion in a subject, time lines, five senses, etc.

My question (That I hope Mrs. Dodd will see). Is:.... one method you suggested was "Universe in a Drop" where many tangents could grow from one love (I believe WWII was your example). My son just LOVES trains and construction equipment, dinosaurs and sharks. His favorite of all would be construction equipment.

For trains - after MUCH thought.... we took a local train ride, and I've hunted up some books and train videos,etc. The only problem I've seen is that he is only interested in pouring over (almost endlessly) good "coffeetable book style" photo pictures of trains,etc. The text for these is so endless (types of engines, size guage for track,etc - whole chapters on these subjects). I have a hard time explaining what most of the pictures are about - and I don't even think he would care most of the time for an explanation but he just likes to look at them.

Well, I can't think of a THING to do with construction except sit outside sites with our own hardhats (which a foreman gave us after he'd seen us so often). Any ideas for other things we could branch to from here?

I am still very unsure how this unschooling will work for my special needs son - because, frankly, he isn't motivated to do very many things and learns best thru lots of repetition of a skill ( like brushing his hair,etc). It doesn't seem that I can only follow his lead on what he'd like - but that I must gently "strew his path with opportunities" and reinforce the skills he'll need to function/ groom, etc. Otherwise, we would spend all our time outside the construction sight with unkempt hair and mismatched clothes :D

I would be thankful for any thoughts you have as I am beginning to understand all of these things better.

robin t.

By AnneO (Anneo) on Tuesday, October 1, 2002 - 12:36 pm:

Hi Robin.

***I don't even think he would care most of the time for an explanation but he just likes to look at them.***

That's fulfilling his needs...for now. And it may be all he wants out of that passion. Don't give him more than he is asking for because he's processing the information differently than you might be imagining!

***I can't think of a THING to do with construction except sit outside sites with our own hardhats***

Videos, books (there are TONS of books!)...make your own construction site (a re-enactment!)? Talk about the jobs of all the different people...the foreman, the engineer, etc...

Also, strewing your children's paths and their lives means doing it in more areas than their immediate passions. It means opening their world, expanding their circle to something greater, and letting them choose from that what they love and want to explore further.

Your special needs son will probably need YOU to be excited about exploring things with him. He'll need to see you be joyfully curious and inquiring and finding your answers to your questions. Think out loud! Be curious out loud! And ask him what he thinks. He will probably benefit most from one-on-one interaction...snuggled up with you while reading a good book, or watching an interesting television show...sitting outside and observing nature... I think you need to be his enthusiasm for learning and he will eventually *get it* for himself.

Read this website, Robin. Read these boards, the FAQ's, the essays...read John Holt.

Welcome to the journey...
Wonderful things are waiting to happen...

~ Anne

By Bugsmom on Tuesday, October 1, 2002 - 12:48 pm:

Look up "How Things Work" - a fun book on the simple machines that make up all these big complex machines - levers, pulleys, etc. Lots of illustrations too. It is also the inspiration for the kid's show CRO (it used to be on Noggin, don't know where it went to). Try making simple machines at home or looking for them - the pulley wheel on the clothesline (if you can find one lol), etc. DS is 4 (so he's just below your DS' functional level) and he loves this stuff. Also, check the kid's book section in the bookstore or library for trucks and construction books - DS has 2 or 3 at least. Boy have I learned a lot about construction equipment! lol There is also a video, if you can find it, where a "genie" takes 2 kids to actual construction sites and they see how different machines work. Also check out the Discovery channel - they have several "big construction vehicles" type programs.

By Sandra Lynn Dodd (Sandradodd) on Tuesday, October 1, 2002 - 02:35 pm:

See if there's a model train club in town. They might have a permanent site with model trains set up.

Maybe you can get him a model train (if you have some room for such things) or at least go look at them somewhere.

My dentist is totally train-crazy. Photographs trains on trestles as a hobby. Waits hours in the sun.

Have you looked at websites? There was a National Geographic (MAYBE, or NOVA? something on PBS) show once I just turned on and LOVED about the last run of a train to a village in India. TOTAL history of that line, lots of trivia about how in India they have lots of 19th century trains they still maintain beautifully, making new parts for them, cleaning/painting and decorating them (as they do elephants sometimes) for festival days. WONDERFUL. Showed how on the train they prepare meals for people depending on what part of the country they're from. So the porters count up how many are from which region, and they get their own local style of rice, etc.

-=-Well, I can't think of a THING to do with construction except sit outside sites with our own hardhats (which a foreman gave us after he'd seen us so often). Any ideas for other things we could branch to from here? -=-
David Mcacaulay!!
books or videos and the list was lifted from a google search, somewhat cut down for this page: David Macaulay's Pyramid, Castle and Cathedral

Cathedral: The Story of Its Construction
... attract the attention of renowned author-illustrator David ... critically acclaimed children's books such as Castle, Pyramid ... He begins Cathedral in 1252, when the ...

David Macaulay has videos and DVDs which you can find with a google search.
DAVID MACAULAY SERIES: CATHEDRAL, CASTLE, PYRAMID, ROMAN CITY each about 60 minutes CATHEDRAL (1985) Uses live-action sequences (the link I had is a dead end now), but Look! He has a set of DVDS, on Skyscrapers, Bridges, Domes, Tunnels and Dams.

-=-I am still very unsure how this unschooling will work for my special needs son --=-
Probably better than any existing option.
-=-because, frankly, he isn't motivated to do very many things-=-
What's so "special" about that!?
-=-and learns best thru lots of repetition of a skill ( like brushing his hair,etc). It doesn't seem that I can only follow his lead on what he'd like - but that I must gently "strew his path with opportunities" and reinforce the skills he'll need to function/ groom, etc. Otherwise, we would spend all our time outside the construction sight with unkempt hair and mismatched clothes :D -=-
Sounds like no problem to me. Just keep him busy and happy and things can only grow from there!

I'm glad you liked that article.

That and more are linked here: SandraDodd.com/articles