7 Smart "Unschooling" Tips to Practice Now — Even If Your Child Is in "Regular" School

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by: Erin Dower
You don't have to homeschool your child in order to enhance her learning with experiences outside the classroom, according to author and education thought leader Clark Aldrich. In his book "Unschooling Rules: 55 Ways to Unlearn What We Know About Schools and Rediscover Education," Aldrich asserts that some of the best learning experiences happen outside the walls of a classroom and the boundaries of school curriculum. Incorporate some or all of Aldrich's "7 Cs of education" to round out your child's schooling and foster a love of learning.
Tips for Learning Outside of School, Mom and girl search the internet together as learning activity
1. Curricula: Explore What Your Child Loves
"When public schools first came along, the curriculum was probably the most important thing they had to offer," Aldrich said. Children attended school so that they could access information that was otherwise hard to find. Even 20 years ago, you had to go to a library to find learning materials. Now, with the explosion of the Internet, information is all around us, but a lot of school curricula were developed in a bygone era, he said.

Aldrich encourages parents to let their child explore topics they're passionate about that aren't taught in-depth or at all in school. For example, if your child loves animals, search for and watch YouTube videos about farming or veterinary science together. "Every kid is dying to figure out, ‘Who am I? What am I passionate about?'" Aldrich said. School often only hits the tip of the iceberg for any given topic that a child might love.

Tips for Learning Outside of School, Boy shadowing veterinarian for learning experience out of school
2. Content: Learn Beyond the Classroom
"Real world" learning outside the classroom can often be much more enriching than classroom learning, Aldrich said. Therefore, immersion experiences like internships shouldn't be reserved for college students and high school graduates, he said. A younger child who loves animals can learn a lot by spending a day at a farm, while an older child can explore a possible career path by spending a school vacation week observing at a veterinarian's office.

Expose your child not only to great books that he won't come across in school, but also to today's technological resources, such as blogs and Excel spreadsheets, which he'll encounter often as an adult, Aldrich advises.

Tips for Learning Outside of School, Dad and girl grocery shopping together as learning activity
3. Coaching: Play a Role in Your Child's Education
Although students spend most of their days with a teacher, you as the parent know your child and his passions better than anyone, Aldrich said. Take as much time as possible to teach your child about the world by exposing him to a variety of experiences.

"Rather than dropping your kid off somewhere before you go to the grocery store, bring her with you," he said. "Involve her in everyday experiences. She'll get to see the world through your eyes, and you'll get to see the world through her eyes." Children will see math, reading, problem solving, and decision making in action when they're along for the ride during "grown-up" activities.

Tips for Learning Outside of School, Group of kids studying bugs inside a jar at summer camp
4. Customization: Add Flexibility to Your Child's Learning
"The ideal class size isn't 30 [students], or even 15, but more like 5," Aldrich states in Unschooling Rules. Given that today's average class size is around 25 students per teacher, school is hardly a customized experience for the variety of children in a class.

Parents should consider settings and models outside of school for more individualized learning experiences in smaller groups, Aldrich said. Summer camps where kids spend more time outdoors than indoors, volunteer opportunities, libraries, community classes, and hands-on clubs like 4-H and Future Farmers of America can enrich children's lives, he said. "Schools can't do it all," he said. Look outside the school walls for more tailored and engaging chances to learn.

Tips for Learning Outside of School, Boy shadowing architect dad on the job as learning activity
5. Community: Surround Your Child with Inspiring Peers
"Children need to be socialized," according to Aldrich in Unschooling Rules. "They need to spend time with peers and adults that is both positive and productive." Most children grow up seeing adults mainly as authority figures — the people who could punish or correct them at any moment rather than the people who could inform and excite them about the world.

Aldrich advises exposing your child to adults in situations where they can be seen as peers. "Look for people within your own network of friends who have common interests with your child," Aldrich said. For example, if your child loves buildings, introduce him to an architect. Let kids and adults mix and mingle from time to time rather than only having "adult parties" and "kid parties," he said.

Tips for Learning Outside of School, Boy looking through his portfolio of achievements
6. Credit: Document How Your Child Shines
If your child had to go to college or start on a career path tomorrow, where would he go, what would he do, and how would he show that he has what it takes? Aldrich's answer: Make a portfolio. "The future is portfolios, not transcripts," he states in his book.

Portfolios aren't just for artists or adults applying for jobs or graduate school. They're a helpful tool for students of any age, and they should contain a few pieces of work that best represent your child and what he's passionate about, Aldrich said. The contents may include references to his volunteer work in the local newspaper, awards from clubs outside of school, and photos or even video clips of him doing what he loves. Portfolios can evolve over time with your child's interests. They can really help your child stand out in a crowd and feel proud as an individual, Aldrich said.

Tips for Learning Outside of School, Parents and two daughters hiking for quality time
7. [Day] Care: Evaluate Where Your Child Spends His Time
Parenting today can be a whirlwind of scheduled activities and drop-offs: from school to a caregiver's house to sports practice or music lessons. While socialization and enrichment through activities is important, the problem with "the drop-off" is that most children are spending too little time with parents — the people who love them and care about them most, Aldrich said.

To "minimize the drop off" and maximize the time spent with your kids, Aldrich advises walking (instead of driving) between destinations so that you and your children can observe the world together on foot, and under-scheduling rather than over-scheduling your kids so that they're learning through life itself and not just through planned activities.

"No one in the world knows your child as well or loves your child as much as you do," Aldrich said. That makes you the ideal person to enhance her learning and expand her mind.

Clark Aldrich holds a degree in cognitive science from Brown University and is the author of four books.

Click here to purchase Unschooling Rules: 55 Ways to Unlearn What We Know About Schools and Rediscover Education.