Unschooling in Practice: How do toilets work?

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A few weeks ago, Dashiell and I had one of those serendipitous afternoons that captures so much of the pleasure and value of unstructured time — the time that allows us to explore whatever the kids’ interests are. While Dashiell and I were “working” side by side in the third floor studio — he on his drawings, me on email no doubt — I noticed that the toilet was acting strangely in the adjacent bathroom so I removed the lid to the tank to investigate. Dashiell was at my side and immediately curious about the toilet’s inner workings; he announced: “I want to learn about toilets!”

Back at the desk and the computer, we made a quick search for toilet diagrams and looked at several to fill in the gaps of our knowledge of how toilets work, both as singular units but also as a part of the larger waster system in the house. Along the way we watched a few videos explaining in more detail various toilet repair procedures, and we both learned about house waste systems that use collected rainwater and graywater.

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Later on, Dashiell made his own diagram of the toilet based on what he had just discovered.

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In many ways, this is not an extraordinary occurrence. But it contains within it many of the elements of the unschooling approach: paying attention to what your children are curious about, facilitating further exploration and research, activating different modes of inquiry and expression, finding ways to channel that investigation in meaningful ways towards longer-term, sustained projects. The challenge moving forward is to know when to nudge such encounters toward these more sustained, ongoing projects, to connect them with a chain of experiences that encourage a certain depth of engagement. This last point is really well addressed in Lori Pickert’s Project-Based Homeschooling.

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