When someone asked what deschooling should look like and be like, Karen James gave some wonderfully practical suggestions:

But what do we actually do while we're doing this?

Play. A lot. Wonder. A lot. Listen. Observe. Smile. A lot.

Pay close attention to your children. Really see what they are doing, what they are interested in, what they are enjoying, what frustrates them, what they like and what they don't like.

Notice how they think. Notice what kinds of things bring them delight. Delight in those things with them. Find ways to add to their experiences. Be open to the things you bring being passed over. Notice what kinds of things are embraced.

If they like shows, watch shows. If they like video games, play video games with them. If they like water, make ice, take them to a splash pad, to a creek, to a lake, to the ocean, to the tub, draw on the side walk with a wet finger and watch it disappear.

Think creatively. Think joyfully. Cultivate an attitude of enthusiasm and awe at as many things you can find in a day, especially the ordinary things or those things you've looked upon with skepticism and fear.

Be thankful. Notice little things throughout the day that are simply good. The health of your children. The pattern on the soap bubbles in your kitchen sink. How perfect a favourite mug feels in your hand or looks on a shelf. A laugh. An easy moment. The breeze. The sunshine. A connection with a loved one. A touch in passing. A deep breath. A full moon. A cat purr. A hole-free sock. 😉

What should I NOT do while deschooling?

Don't measure. Not how much time something holds interest. Not how well one measures up to their peers. Not how well you "fit in" to the idea of what makes a successful unschooling parent. Not how many hours a child plays a game. Not how many shows one watches in a row. Not how many cookies are consumed in one sitting.

Instead of measuring at a distance, get involved. Get to know your child well enough to feel confident in their ability to make choices that support their learning. Your confidence in them, will help them cultivate real confidence in themselves. Find ways to support their exploration of the things they find interesting, fun and delicious. Don't step back with an attitude of "Fine, do whatever you want." Be there. Support, encourage and build in partnership with them.

Don't shelter them from the world. Don't let them loose in it. Walk with them, paying attention to what it looks like they need to know (not what you think they should know). Partner with them in this real world we live in, so that they can learn, with your guidance and support, how to make the most of their explorations and their ever-growing experience. Give them room to make mistakes, but don't fabricate hardship. As much as possible set them up for success, but do your best to be present in the way that fits their needs when things don't go as planned.

Don't talk too much about things that shouldn't concern them. Don't talk at length about unschooling. Just do it, building on every new insight you gain through every new experience you share with your children. Notice natural learning when you see it. But let their learning and experiences be ordinary, like their isn't reason to think it exceptional. Let them really live the experience of learning naturally. Don't make it a performance. Let it be real and felt in a whole way inside them.

Don't become too attached to your ideas. Have ideas. Create a rich environment in which learning can flourish. Be interesting and interested, but don't take over. Let your children own their experiences. Share in their experiences if they welcome you, but be mindful of the space you take up in them.

If I could go back in time, these are some of the things I would have told myself. Most importantly, have fun. 😊

Karen James
Always Learning, June 17, 2015

In September 2015, in response to someone saying she felt bad and embarrassed for her son, because when he needed to sign a fishing license he didn't know how to, Karen wrote:
One of my hopes for Ethan is that he continue, life-long, to embrace learning without apology. When I was a young girl in school, I performed too well. There were other children in my classes who didn't perform well enough. Consequently, we were, both sides, made to feel ashamed of our efforts. Kids mocked us for not conforming. Teachers centered us out for performing on either side of some set standard. Parents responded to our efforts based on the evaluation of teachers and the response of friends. Learning was measured by everything other than its usefulness to the learner. For me, that muddied the whole purpose of learning. It was a distraction for many, many years.

One of the reasons Doug and I chose to unschool Ethan was to try to set up an environment where he would rarely feel a need to perform for anyone else in his learning. Be careful of feeling bad or embarrassed for your son. His learning is not yours to feel bad or embarrassed about. Hopefully he will rarely feel embarrassed about what he does or doesn't yet know. Hopefully he will be able to approach new experiences with an attitude of wonder at the opportunity, not ashamed, but feeling challenged in a good way, maybe even excited.

After reading this question and the replies, I said to Ethan, who's twelve now, "Have you ever thought about how you'd like to sign your name." He turned around from where he was looking and said, "No. Not really." "Want to?" I asked. "Sure!" he said.

So we sat side by side at the table. I showed him how I sign my name. He laughed because it was fast and all lowercase and kinda cute, but mostly illegible. I showed him how my mom signs her name. I know how because I used to try to copy it when I was a girl. My dad's too. My dad's signature has big capital letters. My mom's has two fancy Ds. Ethan had a big smile on his face as he watched.

He gave his name a try, and got a bit frustrated. He signs his name on cards to family and friends, but he was aiming for something a little more personalized--formal maybe. He doesn't do a lot of handwriting. We've only explored cursive a couple of times, briefly. I showed him my signature again and mentioned how I only write the k for my first name, as in kjames. I suggested he could make his even shorter if he wanted to--EJ. He made an E like a backwards three, and a J like a sideways infinity sign. He said "I love that!" (the simple nature of it, and that one of his letters looked like an infinity sign) and proceeded to fill the page with his new signature, writing big and teeny and in between.

It's perfectly natural for things to come up that we haven't visited yet. That (hopefully) will happen for the rest of our lives. I no longer see any shame in that, thanks to unschooling with Ethan. Ethan might decide not to visit his signature again for a while. He might try something completely different when he does. Reading this question here gave me an idea for something new to offer him. If he had said "Not right now," that would have been fine. He said "sure," so it became a little something extra to add to his ever-growing experience in the world. He felt good about his effort. The next time he signs his name he'll have some positive context to draw on.

Let the experiences in life be opportunities, not measurements by which we judge how well we're doing or not doing. Rather than feeling bad or embarrassed about what you or your son doesn't know, see it as a chance to learn something new, and let him decide if it's relevant to him, while you examine more closely what's important to you.

More by Karen James

More on deschooling

What unschoolers would have done differently