Unschooling: September 2016 Free to Be edition

Hello from Phoenix, Arizona! Kaitlyn, Ashar and I spent Sept. 27 to Oct. 6 here at the Free to Be Unschooling Conference and visiting with Kaitlyn’s family. (Honest disclaimer: I meant to post this from Phoenix, but didn’t bother editing photos, so now I’m finishing up from back home in York, PA.)

Free to Be is our one chance each year to gather with other people who live and learn like we do, and we sort of try to cram a year’s worth of friendships and communal unschooling living into four days. In today’s post, I’m going to try to mix in both our experiences this September as well as the new things I’ve been thinking about thanks to the awesome sessions at the conference.

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.

Unschooling in September 2016: The York County 4-H Alpaca Club took some of their animals to a local nursing home to visit with the residents.

The York County 4-H Alpaca Club took some of their animals to a local nursing home to visit with the residents.


Ashar spent a lot of time in September reading a book she started in August, Double-Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies.

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!
She had originally aimed to finish it before Free to Be, and while she didn’t quite get there, she only has about four chapters left and should finish soon.

She’s also started working on her test-prep books, which she’s using to try to prepare for a placement test at our local community college.

Another reading thing this month: We re-instated one of our longtime favorite things, family read-aloud time! Reading aloud to teenagers is TOTALLY cool – see Alice Ozma’s The Reading Promise if you don’t already think so – and a way for us to enjoy books together! This month, we tackled a short biography of Ulysses S. Grant, and when we get home, we’re on tap to start one about Lionel Messi. If you haven’t already checked out our take on why biographies are so cool, I hope you will – we love them.

The other project going on related to reading at our house right now is one I also mentioned last month: the creation of a “reading room” in a spare alcove. We got rid of a bed that was just taking up space, so now we need to add some comfy seating areas for reading and doing projects!

Unschooling in September 2016: Here's the York County 4-H Alpaca Club at their York Fair show, with their amazing leaders Beth and Sheri. Ashar is wearing her Alexander Hamilton costume from the costume contest.

Here’s the York County 4-H Alpaca Club at their York Fair show, with their amazing leaders Beth and Sheri. Ashar is wearing her Alexander Hamilton costume from the costume contest.

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!

  • The Walking Dead: Chris and Ashar are caught up through the end of Season 6 and anxiously awaiting the start of Season 7.
  • Serenity: After finishing Firefly last month, Serenity was an obvious next choice.
  • Blazing Saddles: We watched this a few days after Gene Wilder passed away, because Ashar and I had never seen it.
  • Me and Earl and the Dying Girl: Ashar and I had a “Girls’ Movie Day” with my friend Tami, watching this. Liked it a lot; can’t imagine reading it as a book, which is really unusual for me, as I often prefer book versions to movie versions.
  • Mythbusters: One of our longtime favorite series; we pick it up and watch a few favorite episodes every so often.
  • Person of Interest: Ashar and my mom picked this up as their new series!
  • Real Genius: This was a Ashar and Chris fun selection!
  • Thirteen Days: Chris and Ashar watched this awesome Cold War movie, and Ashar really was able to understand and articulate the kinds of problems Kennedy and Russia were facing.
  • Top Secret: Another Ottos Fun Choice, tied to their Cold War theme.
  • The first presidential debate: Ashar was more into this than the rest of our family, so we watched it with her. Certainly eye-opening…
  • WWE Raw: It’s like the debate, only more realistic 😉
Unschooling in September 2016: Another 4-H activity during the York Fair: Helping out at the petting zoo, which is a tradition Chris and Ashar share together.

Another 4-H activity during the York Fair: Helping out at the petting zoo, which is a tradition Chris and Ashar share together.

Video games

This is another area with prerequisite reading! I have a whole series about video-game learning that I’d also love for you to check out if you haven’t already.

  • MLB 15: The Show: Ashar’s custom player, Kuekuatsu “Wolverine” Logan Jr., made it to a 72-game hit streak.
  • Destiny
  • Fibbage 2
  • Pokemon Go: Yep, we play this pretty hardcore! Added bonus: Our hotel at Free to Be is a Pokemon gym, and there is a mall nearby with a bunch of Pokestops, so we were able to level up a bunch – and catch Pikachus, finally.
Unschooling in September 2016: What, more alpacas? In sunflowers? With cool 4-H kids? (I didn't take this photo; our club leader Sheri did; I just think it's super-cool.)

What, more alpacas? In sunflowers? With cool 4-H kids? (I didn’t take this photo; our club leader Sheri did; I just think it’s super-cool.)

Board and card games

Something cool we started this month, which was Chris’ idea, is a Wednesday night family game night after dinner. We have all these cool games that we love to play, but in our lives, it’s just rare for us all to be home at the same time and free to play them unless we really plan for it – so that’s what we’re trying to do! So far we’ve had two, and once we’re back from our Arizona trip we plan to continue.

Games we’ve played this month include Family Feud (basically Ashar’s favorite TV show, made into a family game); Lanterns, which Ashar had bought for us back in April, and which is really low-key and relaxing; and Munchkin, which we’d had since at least last Christmas but never tried – and ended up really enjoying!

Unschooling in September 2016: One of the contests every year at the York Fair is "Who Can Grow the Giant-est Pumpkin?" This was this year's winner (shown with Ashar and Lilac Pengin.)

One of the contests every year at the York Fair is “Who Can Grow the Giant-est Pumpkin?” This was this year’s winner (shown with Ashar and Lilac Pengin.)

Places, projects and other odds and ends

Laser tag party: Ashar turned 16 back in March, and she didn’t want to have a party locally; instead, we celebrated with a mini shopping spree at an out-of-town mall and had a dinner at Texas Roadhouse with our extended family. But what she really wanted was to have a birthday party in Phoenix with all of her closest friends, who either live in that town or were there for the conference. So that’s what we did, at an awesome place called Crackerjax in Scottsdale that I can highly recommend. Laser tag, go-karts, mini golf, arcade games, and good pizza. Sixteen-and-a-halfth-birthday win.

York Fair: Fair time is always big for us. Ashar’s projects from the 4-H fair went on to our big county fair, and her alpaca poster won third place! We’d also both entered some (non-4-H) artwork, and I got first, second and third places for three pieces of mine. Then there was the alpaca club’s show at the fair, where Ashar came in fourth in both showmanship and obstacles and then, for the second year in a row, won first place in the costume category! This year, she was Alexander Hamilton and Glacier the alpaca was Aaron Burr, complete with a shirt with ruffled neck and cuffs, dueling pistols and tall socks (or, in the case of the recalcitrant alpaca, legwarmers). It was pretty great!

Other 4-H fun: We also took the alpacas to a local nursing home and shared them with the residents for an evening. That was great – Ashar likes showing the animals to people who don’t know about them more than just about anything, so she was right in her element.

News from the Mom front: I started my third semester of grad school (which, to be honest, I’m kind of regretting at this point, but we’ll see). In happier news, at a scrapbooking day I went to, I finished our 2015 family scrapbook! That puts me right on track – I generally won’t work on a year ’til it’s over, so I’m usually spending the year working on the previous year’s book. Getting it done a little early is great because now, at two scrapping events I’m going to in October and November, I can tackle some older projects that have kind of been lingering out there and knock them off. In less-good news, after a few months of better-than-usual health for me, I spent most of September feeling a bit more under the weather, which is not super unexpected but still kind of stinks.

Unschooling in September 2016: Here's the crew at Ashar's laser tag half-birthday party in Phoenix - Cam, Liv, Gabriel, Ashar, Janae and JJ in the front with Michael up top.

Here’s the crew at Ashar’s laser tag half-birthday party in Phoenix – Cam, Liv, Gabriel, Ashar, Janae and JJ in the front with Michael up top.

Observations on unschooling from Free to Be

I have to be honest – I really am not at this unschooling conference for the unschooling part itself. I come for the people – our friends and Ashar’s, who we wait all year to see. Last year, I think I only attended maybe two scheduled talks and a couple of art sessions, and that was 100% fine.

This year, though, I had some friends who were speaking, and in particular, who were leading small-group chats about issues that really resonated with me – like unschooling when you have a chronic illness, or unschooling a teen with Asperger’s, or coming to radical unschooling from more traditional and control-oriented parenting methods.

When I’m at home, where I literally know maybe two other unschooling families, Facebook is where I go to find people who understand. Here, I got to do it in person, and it was just absolutely amazing. I didn’t take any actual notes, but there have been a few things that stuck in my mind:

Meet your child as the person they are. This came during an awesome chat led by my dear friend and my “wise owl,” Pam Clark. I think most of us as parents think we’re doing this – we’re very conscious about valuing our children’s uniqueness and would say that we don’t want them to be something they’re not. But in reality, it’s just so easy (and I’m super-guilty of this myself) to say things like “Why can’t you act your age?” or “No one else is having a problem with this, why are you?” And that isn’t respecting who your child is in this moment. Maybe they’re 16, but when they’re disappointed and crying, maybe you’re still talking to the 7-year-old inside who’s dealing with some serious inner angst, and you have to talk to that 7-year-old to make any impact in that moment.

Spending time with your kids is enough. The brilliant Jen McGrail helped us get to this realization during her chat on chronic illness and its effects on unschooling families. Most of us were really bummed about the days when we feel like we can’t get out of bed and go do all the things we think our kids would like to do, or would benefit from. But my friend Rachel Miller said something that really made me think – she went to public school, and her mom had some health challenges. She had family friends who would take her places, but all she really wanted was to just sit and watch TV or just talk with her mom. That really hit me hard. I also had been thinking about how, no matter how many times I tell Ashar in words that her best is always good enough, I’m showing her with my actions and my self-criticism that my own best isn’t good enough for me – and that’s the lesson she’ll learn if I’m not careful. Deep stuff.

It’s OK for us (especially Sarah) to make the decisions that are healthiest for us. That means that Ashar might not ever decide to get her driver’s license. (You would not believe the number of people who started hammering us about that as soon as she turned 16.) She doesn’t want to – and as I heard in chat about unschooling with Asperger’s run by my friend Carma Parden, that’s not only normal but pretty common. I spoke with two late teen/early 20s young people in that group who also do not drive because it’s super-stressful for them. The sad part is, I was really struggling with the idea of Ashar not driving, and somehow, hearing that ANYONE else made the same decision just immediately made it OK to me. I wish I didn’t need that kind of external validation, but at the same time, it’s so great to know we’re not alone in the decisions we make, you know?

I’ll actually have more photos and thoughts from Free to Be in our October roundup, so I hope you’ll check back for that, too!

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

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4 thoughts on “Unschooling: September 2016 Free to Be edition

  1. I have a friend who has dyspraxia, which has different challenges from Asperger’s but I believe some overlap, and she only recently started learning to drive, in her late twenties. Here in the UK you can’t start learning until 17 unless you have a physical impairment, and although many do learn at 17 (I did – but didn’t drive again for years!) it really depends where you live. Lots of my friends grew up in cities and didn’t learn til after they graduated from university because they didn’t need to.

    Sounds like it’s been a bit of an up and down month for you, so here’s hoping for more up than down for the rest of the year 🙂

    • May, thanks for the kind words! I think the thing that’s hardest here is that we don’t live in a city and we don’t have good public transportation – if we did, I think Sarah could probably go her whole life without driving! (We barely have Uber – that’s how much we don’t do “public” transit of any kind!)

  2. Aspergers runs heavily in my family through my dad’s side. My dad and his parents and brothers and sisters all have signs. Some stronger than others. My kids and I are on the spectrum and so is my cousin. It’s so hard sometimes! Especially being a stay at home mom with my kids and basically falling into unschooling over the years. We get so much criticism. And I am constantly my own worst enemy, thinking I’m failing my kids. All three of us love movies and TV and video games quite heavily. Which is great some days but other days I get really down on myself for it. Also my husband has a full time job and is not aspergers. So he is much more strict… I know because he cares but it can be hard. He often doesn’t want us to be up late, mostly because he says he’d like time with me, and also our sin is such a picky eater that it causes a lot of stress. It’s just all around hard. I’d like to be more free and feel more free but it feels like there is so much resistance.

    • Melissa, it’s so nice to hear from you! I’m sorry to hear you get criticism and definitely understand the feeling of not being sure you’re doing the right thing by your kids. Please hang in there… take the freedoms you can, a bit at a time. It’s not perfect, but it definitely does matter!

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