Unschooling Stories with Sylvia Woodman

Interview by Pam Laricchia as part of the Exploring Unschooling series February 1, 2018

The links and the list of questions are here: Exploring Unschooling #109

Transcript of interview

Pam Laricchia, February 2, 2018, about her interview of Sylvia Woodman:
Sylvia Woodman joins me on the podcast this week and shares lots of wonderful stories from her family's unschooling lives. She and her husband Jim have two children, ages thirteen and eleven, who have never attended school. We chat about how she discovered unschooling, ways to create an environment in which natural learning thrives, how unschooling has been healing and liberating, technology, and lots more.

You can listen to the episode here or on YouTube, or read the full transcript here. Sylvia had a "one-third-of-a-life crisis" in her twenties, asking herself, “What am I doing and is this how I want to spend my life?” Her perspective shifted, she left her career in the private sector, married Jim, and moved from the New York City area to central New Jersey, where they live now. She got a job working at a non-profit and she explains, "one of the volunteers handed me, with very little explanation, a copy of Grace Llewelyn’s Teenage Liberation Handbook. It was just sort of like, “Sylvia, I really think you should read this book. I think you would like it.” And I did, and it kind of changed the trajectory of our lives."

The book really resonated with her own school experience: "I remember so vividly in my senior year of high school feeling like, “This is a gigantic waste of time. There is so much out there in the world and I have to come in and sign in for home room and spend time doing homework, and homework that was frequently never even collected, writing papers that no one was ever going to read.” And I was thinking, “New York is like a 45 minute drive from here. I could be in New York City. I could go to museums. I could go to galleries. I could go to the theater. What am I doing here?” And I spent a lot of time in my life, in my teenage years, lying on my bed thinking, “When is my real life going to begin?” And one of the things that has been so great about unschooling is really being able to help my kids understand that this is their real life. There is no waiting. This is it now. And this is my real life now. And I don’t have to wait. I don’t have to postpone things until the kids get older, until Jim retires. We can do it all now. And that has been huge for us."

I asked her about her experience shifting away from school-type learning and toward creating an environment where natural learning flourishes, and she shared a story from her time in La Leche League:

"I remember just around the time that Gabriella turned five, and a lot of my other La Leche League mom friends who also had kids around that age were unboxing these gorgeous looking curriculums they had purchased. This one had a STEM focus, and this one is going to be focusing on a Waldorf spin. And part of me—I love school supplies, I love the beginning of school, I love that sort of feeling of a fresh start with things—and I, for one moment, had a moment of, “Oh my god. What am I doing? Wait. We don’t have a box.” And then I kind of took some deep breaths and I was like, “No, no, no, no. Okay.”

And one of the other girls came up to Gabriella and said, “We’re going to be learning physics and Mandarin Chinese.” And Gabriella said to her, “And we’re going to go to the new playground!” And I realized, I bet everybody would really rather go to the new playground than learn Mandarin Chinese. You know, when they’re five. And then I realized, “Okay, yeah. We’re okay.” Going to the new playground is okay. Gabriella might decide to learn Mandarin Chinese someday. And it turns out that just through the process of living her life and building things and exploring things, she’s learned a fair amount of physics along the way. But I didn’t need to have a boxed curriculum for that to happen."

While she was actively deschooling, Sylvia found it really helpful to be flexible and open-minded. Not every child is going to do everything at the same age, or in the same order. For example her younger child learned to read fluently before her older one. And through the experience she had a wonderful revelation about reading:

What I also didn’t understand is that what they were able to read was not connected to what they were able to understand. They had very big vocabularies, they could understand very sophisticated content, but they weren’t necessarily going to go to a reference book to learn more. They had other resources available to them. They had podcasts, they had YouTube, they had voice-to-text if they wanted to communicate with people; they had lots of other ways to getting to the same place.
Not reading wasn't interfering with their learning at all!

Not only that, as we see our children learning all sorts of things, they invariably learn things that we don't know yet. And they tell us about it—we learn from them. This helps us turn the notion that "mom is the teacher and the kids are the students" on its head. We really are all learning, side-by-side. We are introducing cool, new things to each other. It levels the playing field, which does wonders for our relationships. More deschooling.

Learning begins to seamlessly weave through our days.

Sylvia explained that she focuses on having fun. "I figure, if I’m having fun and the kids are having fun and they’re happy and they’re engaged and they’re comfortable, then the learning happens seamlessly and as a total side effect. So often people discuss school as the child’s work, just like, “Mommy and daddy go to their jobs and you go to your job, which is school,” and then, “School work is hard and it requires effort and diligence and discipline.” And we’re not finding that to be our experience. We’re finding that learning is fun and is—I don’t want to say it’s always easy. I mean, sometimes people do put in a lot of effort, and there’s frustration, and there’s taking breaks and coming back to things. But I really don’t want people to get the idea that learning has to be drudgery. That you can focus on doing fun things, cool things, interesting things. Noticing what your kids are interested in and maybe saying, “Oh, since you like this, do you think you would like that?”"

She shared a great story about how her son's love of video games and his love for the game Fallout 4 lead to them seeing the musical Anything Goes. She said, "Not everybody would make the connection that, “Oh, if my kid plays video games, we might get to go see musical theater.”" Haha!

But it's so true! There have been countless times that my children's interests have taken us places I would never have envisioned.

Which led to another great observation Sylvia shared: "One of the things that my kids sometimes complain about is sometimes they think we’re too busy. Because I’m always like, “Oh, there’s this cool thing. Oh! We could go here. Oh—there’s a thing over there.” We had an extremely busy summer, so the kids are like, “We have to do less next summer.” And I’m like, “Okay.” And that also was something important for me to learn. I personally am a very extroverted, outgoing person, and my kids and my husband and pretty much all of my extended family are more introverted than I am. They’re happy at home. They’re happy on their own. I have a hard time understanding and relating to this. So I had to make some big adjustments in my own expectations of my own ‘what it was going to look like.’ Because my kids really need periods of busy-ness, and then times to decompress. And then periods of busy-ness, and then time to decompress."

Yet another reason why unschooling days can look so different between families: we're each a group of unique individuals, with different needs, and how they weave together each day can look so very different.

Then we talked about how moving to unschooling can be so healing and liberating for the parents. One of the areas around which she was carrying a lot of weight/baggage was food. She worked through concerns around judging food as "good" and "bad," noticing how that has changed over the years, for example, around butter and eggs. And the "feast or famine" relationship that can develop around foods that are restricted.

She added, "I also would like to say about food and stuff: unschooling doesn’t prevent normal kid stuff. My son Harry was very selective about what he would eat for a long time. For a long time, there were only a few things that he would reliably eat all the time. And both my kids nursed for a very long time, and so I knew they were getting some nutrition that way. But in terms of other foods, he was very limited in what he would eat. And I don’t know whether he had some food allergies that maybe he later outgrew, or maybe it was a sensory thing, or textures, or smells. I don’t know. Because he was little and he couldn’t really articulate why he didn’t want to taste something. So, we let it ride for a long time. And more recently, in the last two years or so, he’s suddenly been much more open to trying new things. And a lot of the places where he got inspired to try new things was TV, video games, YouTube videos."

She shared a couple of fun stories about trying out Kentucky Fried Chicken and doing an Oreo cookie challenge. :-)

She concluded, "Harry went from being the picky eater to a kid who really is open to trying new things. But he had to come to the point where he would understand for himself that trying new things can be a positive experience. That sometimes you can try new things and it’s really good. Because I think for a long time, any time he tried something new, it was not good, and it was disappointing. I don’t care if he’s a person who loves to eat 100,000 different things. I care that he’s a person who’s willing to try new things."

Next, Sylvia shared stories about her family's experience with technology. She remembers getting some very good advice when her son was young: find a video game to play herself.

The first video game that I ever played was Plants vs. Zombies. And it was like the number one app I think in 2009 or 2010. Looking back at it now, it feels so funny. But that was the first time that I played a video game all the way through. It was the first time I ever encountered a boss level. It was the first time I understood about mini games and the games within a game and there was the mission and then there was the side stuff.

And also, what I really appreciated was—and this is so funny now—how advanced the graphics were compared to things like Pac Man and Space Invaders from when I was growing up. And this is like, 2010 graphics as opposed to 2018 graphics. But at the time, I was like, “Wow, there’s an awful lot of detail in here!” And also, Plants vs. Zombies—there’s so many funny jokes. And there were so many references to things.

For a long time, when Harry was around five, he loved Plants vs. Zombies, but his favorite aspect of it was: there’s an almanac where they list out all the zombies, and give their back stories, and all the plants, and the plants all have distinct personalities, and features and traits. And also the catch phrases. And you know how a little kid likes to have their favorite book read to them over and over again? He loved for me to read that almanac to him, over and over again. And we would crack up and laugh every single time. And when we finally beat the whole game, they play a song at the end. And so then we found YouTube videos of the song, and we would dance to the song around the living room, and sang all the lyrics. And then they made Halloween costumes, and Harry was a zombie and Gabriella I think was a plant, and Jim went as Crazy Dave with a pot on his head. So again, like everything, it starts small, and it gets big. It ripples out. So like yeah, Plants vs. Zombies was the pebble in the lake, but then all this other good stuff came out afterwards."

I love that metaphor! It's amazing the ripples that spread out into the world when you realize a passion is like a pebble tossed in the water. Again, so often we end up places we couldn't have imagined.

She also shared a story about when she started playing Minecraft. She explained that one of the most powerful things about that was discovering how bad she was at it: "How hard it was for me to do anything in it. How it took me forever to get through the door without banging into the door frame. How it took me forever to line up the bricks and to clear the path. You know, it took me so long. And that my kids could help me. That they could be the teacher. That they were the expert. And I think it’s really cool when a seven-year-old is in that position, of showing you how to do stuff. Like that’s really—because especially for a seven-year-old who’s the littlest kid in the family, who’s the littlest kid of our peer group. You know what I mean? Who’s always the smallest, the last. And for this to be the area where he’s big, and he’s powerful, and knowledgeable, and a respected expert. Like that’s a huge thing. And that is not something that kids get on a regular basis."

When I asked Sylvia what her favourite thing about their unschooling lifestyle is right now, she said it was hard to pick just one thing!

I love the flexibility. The ability that we could travel whenever we want. Like we’re not tied to the school system. I love the fact that I can play. That I am free to play just as much as my kids are free to play. I like to do a lot of cooking. I like to experiment with a lot of recipes. We like to invite a lot of people over. We can have parties. We can play games. We don’t have to do what everybody else is doing. We’re free to not only do what’s right for us but what makes us happy. And I feel like by unschooling that provides a really nice framework for that to happen.
I think she nailed it. Unschooling is a wonderful lifestyle!

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