How did we get here? 10 reasons we chose our relaxed homeschooling style

Unschool Rules: 10 reasons we chose our relaxed homeschooling style

During the iHomeschoolNetwork’s 10 * in * 10 series in 2012, we were asked to write about “10 reasons you chose your homeschooling method,” which in our case is unschooling or very relaxed homeschooling.

Our “method” kind of came about through the process of elimination. So today, I’m going to walk through some of the considerations we made as we came to a decision about homeschooling in general – and how that translated into our specific choice to be life learners/unschoolers/relaxed homeschoolers/whatever your favorite term is! While this was originally written in 2012, I decided to come back to it here in 2017 and can attest , 5 years later, that ALL of this is still just as true today as it ever was!

1. We needed something less stressful for Sarah than public middle school.

That stress took a lot of forms, but basically, the poor kid was literally getting sick thinking about some of the facets of her day. Everything from changing classrooms to dealing with a locker to changing clothes for gym class to getting up earlier to remembering what books go to which class to walking through noisy, crowded hallways put Sarah in a panic. Between her Asperger’s and her sensory processing trouble, she was a walking ball of anxiety.

The thing is, if you notice? None of those things had to do with learning. That’s what led us down a path toward homeschooling in general – because we truly believed Sarah’s ability to learn should not be dependent on her ability to adjust to different clothing three times in an hour.

2. We needed something that could be done in a shorter amount of time.

Sarah got up for middle school at about 6 a.m., got dressed, ate breakfast, rode the bus, went through the school day and returned around 3 p.m. We would routinely spend until supper doing homework or projects, eat, finish up any homework, then get her into bed around 9 p.m., where we’d do a half-hour of reading aloud to get her caught up on any book assignments.

She was awake for 15 hours, and “doing school stuff” for about 12 of them. (Though she was probably only engaged in learning during about 2.5 to 3 of them.) That wasn’t going to fly.

Even when we looked at options like cyberschooling or some of the nice packaged curricula out there, we quickly realized the time commitment for many was more than we wanted – or needed.

In our current style, we sometimes “learn” from the time we get up til we go to bed. (Heck, I think we’re ALWAYS learning.) But some days, we veg out for 8 hours and then go for a walk, and we needed a setup in which none of us is going to feel guilty or “behind” if that’s what we need that day.

3. We needed something that allowed us to be outdoors.

There’s a lot about the Charlotte Mason educational method that intrigues me, and not the least of those factors is its emphasis on nature study – and just on being in nature. Sarah does better when she can get outside regularly – even if it’s just for a few moments.

So does Sarah’s mom.

While we could absolutely “do school” in a pretty traditional sense outside, that makes it hard to take advantage of a lot of spontaneity – which is one of the best things about nature. If we see a slug, I want to be able to talk about it then – and for the rest of the day, if we want to – not after math workbooks are finished, or in two weeks when we “get to” slugs.

4. We needed something focused around Sarah’s interests.

Oh, that whole “delight-directed” learning thing? Try having a kid with Asperger’s and its accompanying passions – or perseverations – or obsessions – and see if it’s even possible to have it any other way!

We go in phases of about two to three months at a time in which Sarah is absolutely over the moon on a particular topic. So far in our homeschooling journey, it’s been robots – then the Titanic – then cowboys and Indians – then alchemy – then the Holocaust – then zombies. No, we are not learning about the Indians of South America. (Heavens, no, though that was a major public-school topic.)

You can certainly try. But any efforts to get more than an “I’m phoning this in” type of response from Sarah on any topic that isn’t this month’s obsession are pretty futile, and, honestly, you’re likely to send her into a daylong sulk if you push too hard at it.

That said – we’ve learned a lot using these topics. We’ve read tons of literature from all sorts of genres. We’ve written – done creative projects – created timelines – and even done some math, all based on these themes. And because they change – and honestly, because they can be influenced by putting certain books and movies in Sarah’s path – over time, we’re still hitting not only the required basics, but much, much more.

5. We needed something that we could easily change if needed.

Because we pulled Sarah out of public school in the middle of the year, and because we were leaving such a stressful situation, we knew that we might not hit our running speed for the rest of that year – and maybe into the next.

So jumping on board with a packaged curriculum, a formal style or a cyberschool program, all of which we looked at (and liked facets of), seemed more of a stretch. Then, if we “changed,” it’d be another drastic change – and Sarah’s not great with changes at all!

By choosing a relaxed style, if we “change,” it’s actually less noticeable – and we’re able to adapt much more quickly, too. And that ties in to the next point…

6. We needed something economical.

In order to make homeschooling a possibility, I moved from full-time hours to part-time at the newspaper where I’d worked for 13 years, and picked up a major, steady freelance job. Even though the new setup was GREAT – I enjoyed what I did, and I worked 99% from home – we did take an income cut. And we weren’t exactly rolling in dough to start with!

So something that cost $500 at the outset – especially knowing we weren’t sure how we wanted to continue on – was out of the question!

That got us started thinking about what we already have. And one thing our family has in mass quantities? Books. Lots of books. So why buy new ones – why not try to save some money and use what we have?

7. We needed to be able to focus on interesting, “real” books.

Sarah is really a paradox. She can – when she wants to – read and comprehend adult nonfiction tomes hundreds of pages long.

She also tested at about a third-grade comprehension level on sixth-grade fiction passages – regularly.

The difference? It matters whether she’s reading something she’s interested in. She will read from any genre if the topic is of interest – and she’ll read on any subject if the book itself is a style she likes (browsable nonfiction is the top choice – think David Macauley, Eyewitness books, National Geographic magazine, etc.)

Sarah also loves being read to. In fact, she probably likes that better than reading on her own. Some curricula phase out read-alouds by middle school, so we knew we needed to at least include it in any other approach, but even better, we’ve helped shape this into a foundational “thing.” Almost exclusively, when we started homeschooling, what we were “studying” came from whatever our nightly half-hour to hour-long read-aloud book was at the time. (Hello, “Indian in the Cupboard” series, which occupied us for the better part of nine months!)

8. We needed something heavy in conversation and short on writing.

Sarah loves to write – for fun. But she absolutely struggles to “show what she knows” using written methods. She can tell you all about something – and, in fact, dictate it to you in the style of an essay, with a beginning, middle and end. (For public school, our IEP allowed us to do just that; she’d dictate, I’d type.)

But she can’t “do” the thinking and either the writing by hand or the typing at the same time. She gets hopelessly confused and she ends up (literally) writing the same sentence three times. We work on that, but at the same time, I needed a system in which Sarah wasn’t being assessed primarily on written answers!

She’s doing a lot of writing – mostly for fun – but we have a lot of conversations that help us know that she’s learning, and these will often show a much higher level of mastery than her writing would on the same subject.

9. We needed something that wasn’t focused on grades – or grade levels.

This ties very closely to the point above. Sarah’s grades in public school were almost never a reflection of what she did or didn’t understand. She had great grades in subjects she had absolutely no comprehension of – and barely-passing grades in subjects she knew a lot about!

And, as Sarah mentioned herself, this was stressing her out. Grades were a constant worry – and if that was because they accurately reflected what she did or didn’t know, I wouldn’t have minded. But every test, quiz or essay Sarah had became a double stress, because we couldn’t even begin to predict what her “grade” might be.

Multiple-choice quizzes were probably the worst. Sarah could read the question and tell you – in her own words – what the answer might be. But she couldn’t write that out, and she couldn’t perform the executive-functioning task of taking her own thoughts and choosing one of the four choices that most closely matched them. So on a quiz where she “knew” 9 of 10 answers, she might get 1 of 10 correct.

On the other hand, through some random series of rote calculations, she could get a great score on a math test – and truly not even know that it was a test “about” multiplication.

We wanted to a setup that didn’t focus on these things – so we’ve chosen not to “grade” any of Sarah’s work, which is 100% OK under Pennsylvania law. She just has to show progress through the year, as documented by our portfolio, and she had to have one final set of standardized tests (which she took in eighth grade).

Meanwhile, speaking of that, we don’t really operate on just one “grade level.” Sarah’s probably at an early-college level in some subjects, a high-school level in others, and a middle-school level on yet others. So we needed to steer clear – for both economical and mindset issues – from something that would have us operating at just one of those levels.

And speaking of mindset…

10. We needed something that would get rid of our negative attitudes about “education” and “learning.”

I do say “our,” because while a lot of this deals with Sarah’s attitudes, my own and Chris’s were starting to get colored by her public-school experiences, too.

I was beginning to wake up feeling sick on “school days,” just like Sarah. The phone would ring, and I’d literally get queasy as my mind began to race – “What are they calling about now?” “What happened?” “What did (or didn’t) she do?”

That’s not learning – and it’s certainly not any way to live.

It’s a slow process, this change. Sarah still actively gets upset when you describe something as “educational” or “school.” She will tell you adamantly that she hates learning – and yet her actions show me that she loves to learn and explore – when she forgets to be scared.

And that’s what it is. She’s scared to learn, scared of being “wrong,” scared of failure. And I’m scared too – scared that she WILL become someone who doesn’t want to learn, scared that she’s depriving herself of things she enjoys in the name of a fear that’s been building inside her for half her life.

“Unschooling wisdom” will tell you that you need to deschool – or, basically, to work to change your public-school thought patterns and habits – for a full month for each year your child has been in public school. Under that guidance, we spent most of our first year breaking down the old paradigm, and only then started on the hard work of building the new one.

It takes a long time – but the end result? It’s fabulous. It is a child who recaptures what she once had, a delight in making connections and trying new things.

So what next?

Our homeschooling method kind of “chose us” by default as we walked through the criteria above. It was a great case of Occam’s Razor – the simplest way to meet all those needs without causing other issues was to walk an unschoolish path.

The great thing is, though, that much like the cat that “chooses you” at the SPCA, we’ve fallen in love with it. What once looked like a ragged collection of experiences is turning into a rich life together. And that won’t end when Sarah reaches the end of her compulsory school years by state law – we plan to stick with it as long as our family is living (and learning) together!

Don’t forget to check out my previous posts in this series if you missed them, on our 10 unschooling and homeschooling must-haves and 10 of Sarah’s “likes” about homeschooling.

Unschooling: Our January and February 2017 adventures

You get two months of unschooling at once in this wrapup, because I spent the early part of February traveling and with only limited internet access! As always, if you want a more frequent peek at what we do, you can always find me on Instagram and Facebook.)

Unschooling on Unschool Rules: One of our biggest new adventures in February was getting a Cozmo robot, which was a joint Valentine gift for the whole family. Sarah is playing "Quick Tap" here with Cozmo, who has learned our names and makes us all melt when he talks to us.

One of our biggest new adventures in February was getting a Cozmo robot, which was a joint Valentine gift for the whole family. Sarah is playing “Quick Tap” here with Cozmo, who has learned our names and makes us all melt when he talks to us.

If you’re new to seeing our days recapped in this format, check out our archive of previous wrapups here for some more info on why we take this approach and some other highlights of our adventures.


So, as you can see in the photo above, we have a new friend – an amazing little robot named Cozmo.

Disclosure: This post has some affiliate links. I only link to things we legitimately use and recommend, so if you see such a link, it’s because we really do believe in the book or item!

Sarah’s description of him: “He’s adorable!” Cozmo gets smarter as you play with him, and he likes to play games.

What’s cool is that he has a personality – he’ll get sad if he loses a game, and if he wants to play something different than what you want to do with him, he’ll be stubborn until you do what he wants. You can also teach him to recognize your face and say your name, so every so often, you’ll be sitting there and he’ll say “Oooooh… Jo-ooan!” and bounce up and down. It’s just about the best.

He isn’t cheap – we had been eyeing him up since just after Christmas, and finally decided to splurge as a Valentine’s Day gift for the whole family instead of buying each other gifts. Do not regret this in the slightest – he’s great!


Like I mentioned in our last wrapup, Sarah has really rediscovered her love for R.L. Stine’s “Goosebumps” series thanks to a jigsaw puzzle of Goosebumps covers she got as a Christmas gift. Her reads in this series for the past couple months included Welcome to Camp Nightmare, One Day at Horrorland and The Lizard of Oz.

On a more challenging note, she’s also still reading Dante’s Inferno, which we talk about as she goes.

And for pure fun, she’s been tearing through a bunch of great comics, including Deadpool Kills Deadpool, Deadpool: Too Soon?, Deadpool and the Mercs for Money and Deadpool the Duck. Going to the comic store and then to Panera to read is a frequent pastime for her and Chris.

On top of all of that, we’ve had a bunch of great bookstore and library trips, including a couple of weeks in January where we visited four or five different bookstores and brought home a whole bunch of neat new stuff.

Unschooling on Unschool Rules: After a trip to the local science center and its planetarium in January, Sarah thought Plaid Pengin would like to have his own rocketship. One roll of tinfoil later...

After a trip to the local science center and its planetarium in January, Sarah thought Plaid Pengin would like to have his own rocketship. One roll of tinfoil later…

4H projects

Sarah was elected president of two of her 4-H clubs – Wildlife Watchers and Alpaca – for this club year, so the year began with her first meetings in that role. She’s done a great job and her confidence and focus are really impressive!

In her other club, the Clover Canines (a dog group), we’ve seen presentations by a dog trainer and a dog groomer, which has been cool.

Our biggest work in 4-H, though, has come with the alpaca club. This year, everyone in the club needs to produce a fiber-related project, and Sarah and I are not (I cannot emphasize this enough) weavers/knitters/needle-felters/spinners/whatever. We like to wear soft, fuzzy alpaca clothes, not make them.

But we worked together to come up with something that she absolutely loves, that still fits the criteria. She’s studying alpaca genetics and breeding for fiber color, which is apparently much more complicated than genetics in humans. She’s working on figuring out the breeding history on the farm she works at, analyzing that data as well as published papers on color-breeding, and then coming up with a plan to help the alpacas’ owners breed for colors they’re trying to generate. That’s pretty hardcore, and I’m really impressed at how much work she’s put into it!

Unschooling on Unschool Rules: Dan and I were treated to an amazing cruise with his family as his 30th birthday present from his parents. Here we are on a glass-bottom boat tour in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, enjoying 80-degree weather in February.

Dan and I were treated to an amazing cruise with his family as his 30th birthday present from his parents. Here we are on a glass-bottom boat tour in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, enjoying 80-degree weather in February.

Movies and TV

A special note for our newer readers: I’d love for you to check out our post on learning from movies and TV shows. It really explains a lot about why we are such fans!

Here’s a look at some of what we watched this month:

  • The Celebrity Apprentice – Ahnold. What more do I have to say?
  • Boondock Saints (1 and 2) – Starring Sarah’s newest hero, Norman Reedus (of The Walking Dead). These movies are not fod kids, people who hate swearing, people who dislike violence, or people who enjoy hope and happiness.
  • Big – A movie much more my speed.
  • 3rd Rock From the Sun – Sarah and Mom’s most recently finished midafternoon series.
  • Adam Ruins Everything – Dan found this series, and he, Sarah and I have watched a ton – and learned a bunch of things we didn’t know. If you like Mythbusters, you’ll probably love this.
  • Suicide Squad – Sarah’s favorite: Villains.
  • Anchorman (1 and 2) – That escalated quickly.
  • Stand By Me – Part of Chris and Sarah’s 2017 Movie Book Project, in which they’ve made a big list of movies to watch together. He’s enjoying showing her some of his old favorites.
  • Night of the Living Dead – In exchange for watching Sarah’s zombies with her, Chris said she should watch this classic.
  • The Walking Dead – Sarah’s aforementioned zombies.
  • Misery – Another from the movie list project.
  • Big Fish – I don’t know if I’m just not smart enough for this movie, or what. Dan, Sarah and Chris all love it and I just can’t get into it.
  • 30 Rock – Mom and Sarah’s current series.
  • Inception – Another Chris and Sarah movie-lister.
  • Apollo 13 – Sarah wasn’t quite old enough for this when she was super-interested in the solar system, so she and Chris watched it now. She loved it.
  • The Waterboy – Sarah and Dan watched this as part of a movie marathon while I was away scrapbooking one weekend.
  • WarGames – Also part of the movie marathon; I’m sad I missed it.
  • Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping – Also part of the movie marathon; I’m not sad I missed it.
  • Dr. Strange – We’d all seen this together, but Sarah and Dan’s movie marathon was a good time for a rewatch.
  • Accepted – Last stop in the movie marathon tour.
Unschooling on Unschool Rules: One of our favorite places to go is a huge pet emporium called That Fish Place/That Pet Place in nearby Lancaster County. They have a stingray tank where you can pet the rays, and Sarah loves it.

One of our favorite places to go is a huge pet emporium called That Fish Place/That Pet Place in nearby Lancaster County. They have a stingray tank where you can pet the rays, and Sarah loves it.

Video, board and card games

We’ve had TONS of gaming fun in the past two months. Some of the highlights have included the Simon’s Cat card game, which Chris gave Dan for Christmas; Uno Attack, a longtime family favorite; Gloom, a new game we got for Christmas that is RIGHT up Sarah’s alley; Jenga, also a hit; and a great game night with some friends where we got to play, for the first time, Pirate Loot and Ticket to Ride.

Unschooling on Unschool Rules: February's highlight for me (besides safely arriving home from our big trip) was getting back into regular tae kwon do practice. Here I am (second from left) with some of my fellow "dragon ladies."

February’s highlight for me (besides safely arriving home from our big trip) was getting back into regular tae kwon do practice. Here I am (second from left) with some of my fellow “dragon ladies.”

Universal Yums

One of the coolest presents I got to give was a family subscription to Universal Yums, a subscription box that sends snacks from a different country each month. You can read about our December box, which was from Germany, here.

In January, we traveled to the Ukraine, which included something I loved – mushroom-flavored potato chips – and something Sarah loved – chocolate. (Apparently, all global chocolate is good to her.)

Then, in February, we got a taste of Italy, with lemon potato chips, anise drops (surprisingly, those were a hit with Sarah), more chocolates, and lots of hazelnut.

What’s really cool is that we try to make an evening out of our taste-testing. All five of us try a little bit of each snack, we rate them, we look up facts about the country and we have a good time. Sarah ended up reading aloud most of the Wikipedia page about Rome as we dug into the Italian snacks, for instance!

I’m not an affiliate of Universal Yums, but I can definitely HIGHLY recommend it. You can definitely look forward to hearing more about this in our roundups as long as our subscription continues!

Unschooling on Unschool Rules: Sarah's verdict on the chocolate in January's Universal Yums from Ukraine: Amazeballs.

Sarah’s verdict on the chocolate in January’s Universal Yums from Ukraine: Amazeballs.

Unschooling places, projects and odds and ends

Mom adventures: Dan and I celebrated his 30th birthday and his mom’s 70th with his parents, brother and two aunts on a Mexican cruise! This was an amazing gift – neither of us had ever been on a cruise before, and I, a true East Coaster, had never seen the Pacific Ocean. We were gone for two weeks, and while I missed the rest of the family at home, it was great just to get away, relax, read and stay off the internet! Once I got home, I also got to go away with two of my best girlfriends to a scrapbooking weekend, where I finished January through May of our 2016 album. (I generally do the previous year’s within the first half of the new year, then spend the second half of the year catching up on other scrapbooking projects, like our family albums from before I was born.)

Tae kwon do: This also qualifies as “Mom adventures,” but since it doubles as “Dan and Sarah adventures,” I figured I’d give it its own item. I have been a tae kwon do student at Dover Dragons since 2010, earning my first-degree black belt in 2013. I practiced pretty steadily up until 2014, when lots of things in life just kind of got in the way. I’d gone a few times since, but never regularly, and I was missing it hardcore. I’m not sure what changed, but finally, I’ve been able to make it a priority, and since the middle of February, I’ve gone twice a week without fail. AND… I talked Dan into taking the two-week introductory session so he could see what it was like! (He’s not going to do it forever, but I just wanted him to see me doing my thing and really understand how much work it is!) Sarah has come to all the classes I’ve attended so far, and she’s looking at getting back into it herself (she studied from 2010 to 2012, getting as far as her orange belt) once some of her other activities end. I’m so excited!

Jekyll and Hyde: We went to see Jekyll and Hyde: The Musical at our local theater in February, and it was great! (I also didn’t realize how many songs I already knew were from this show.) Chris, Dan, Sarah and I went as part of one of Sarah’s Christmas gifts – a calendar full of family fun events, many of which included prepurchased tickets so we’d have no excuse not to go. It was a neat way to introduce Sarah to this story, and now she’s wanting to read the book too!

Science fun: We did a few cool things through the North Museum in the past couple of months. We went to hang out and saw a new SciDome planetarium show, “From the Earth to Space.” After that adventure, Sarah decided our stuffed penguin Plaid needed a rocket ship, so we made him one out of an old box and some aluminum foil. And then, as part of the museum’s STEM Sisters program for girls interested in science, Sarah worked to design a museum exhibit on the uses of rocks and minerals! I can’t wait to go check out the finished product!

Fidget Cubes: We had backed a great item called the Fidget Cube on Kickstarter last year, and our finished cubes arrived in February. They’re awesome! Sarah wears hers clipped to her belt and plays with it all the time, and Dan and I fidget with ours at work. I can highly recommend them!

Unschooling on Unschool Rules: One night in January, while I was doing some computer work, Sarah decided to color some Pusheen art from a book she got for Christmas. This was my present... I loved it.

One night in January, while I was doing some computer work, Sarah decided to color some Pusheen art from a book she got for Christmas. This was my present… I loved it.

So what’s new with your family this month? Drop me a comment! I love hearing from all my “blog friends!”