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Published November 13, 2012, 02:25 PM

Grand Forks Area Parents Talk Un-Schooling Their Children

Un-schooling is a type of home schooling that some parents use as an alternative to sending their kids to public or private schools. No specific curriculum is used. The unconventional approach to education promotes learning that’s driven by the child’s interests and occurs at the child’s own pace.

By: Pamela Knudson, Grand Forks Herald

At age 6, Hayes Muiderman built his first guitar.

Now, at 13, he’s working on a second.

“This one is bigger,” said the Thompson, N.D., teen. “I outgrew the first one.”

He was inspired by his father, Dr. Kevin Muiderman, who builds guitars in the family’s woodworking shop.

The project is typical of “un-schooling,” and reflects the way Hayes has been learning his whole life.

He follows his interests wherever they lead — not just for hobbies but subjects across the board — such as science, math, English and social studies.

Un-schooling is a type of home schooling that some parents use as an alternative to sending their kids to public or private schools. No specific curriculum is used.

The unconventional approach to education promotes learning that’s driven by the child’s interests and occurs at the child’s own pace.

Hayes and his sister, Jenna, 15, have never attended a traditional school. Their education is guided by their mother Amy Muiderman who calls herself an “un-schooler.”

“We give them the basic tools they’ll need,” Muiderman said. “The learning occurs on their timetable, not somebody else’s.”

The goal: “We want them to become independent learners and lifelong learners.”

Seeds of inspiration

Muiderman was introduced to home schooling when, as a college student in Michigan, she began babysitting for a family that home-schooled their children.

“The experience I had growing up was that children were quiet, behind the scenes,” she said. The children she took care of “were engaged, funny and not intimated by adults at all.” For them, “learning seemed to flow throughout the day. It fit into the home environment,” she said.

“The idea wasn’t that there’s only learning going on when you have your books out or you’re in the classroom.”

The approach appealed to her, and she chose to pursue it later with her own children.

As youngsters, Hayes and Jenna didn’t watch a lot of TV, Muiderman said, but they did watch public television.

“They got very interested in string theory and black holes — not things that preschoolers are usually interested in.”

String theory is the study of the tiniest part of matter, she said. “The kids love that kind of stuff. It set the stage for learning about everything.”

She’s quick to add that her kids are not experts in these topics, nor are they on the road to becoming astrophysicists, “but they’re engaged with it,” she said.

“This exposure, early on, opens up a bigger world. And they understood that there are very few topics that only adults can learn.”

Diverse practices

Home-schoolers are diverse in philosophy and practice, she said.

“There’s a huge range. It depends on the family. Some like to make up their own materials. Some use resources they find online.”

Others use a structured curriculum akin to what schools use, she said. “They just do it at home. “Some are antagonistic to the school system and don’t want to any connection to them at all.”

Un-schoolers tend to choose materials from the public library and resources they find through the Internet or in the community.

“It’s kind of hard when you’re starting out,” said Kristin Skrydlak-Simlai, Grand Forks, who home-schools her children, ages 8, 5 and 1.

Until this fall, she home-schooled her 13-year-old son for all but a couple of early “frustrating” years in public school which prompted her to explore home schooling.

“I looked at the curriculum. I read and read and read, a lot,” she said. “I asked my son what he was interested in learning.

“There’s so much out there.”

When her son was younger, “he’d ask ‘why?’ about 8 million times a day, and I’d say, ‘if you don’t know why, go find out, and I’ll help you find out why.’

“I wanted to create a love of learning all the time.”

Internet search engines are important tools, she said. “I love Google. It’s a really great starting point.”

She also encourages her children to use the library or helps them find someone who can teach them about a certain topic.

Learning is part of every experience, home-school proponents say. They seek opportunities and try to expose their children to as many new experiences as possible.

The Muiderman family’s penchant for travel, for example, becomes fertile territory for a deeper study of geography.

“We always try to connect (learning) to life. Curious people tend to do this naturally, but we create that spark.”

She and her husband also try to model life-long learning as adults, she said.

Muiderman is not employed outside the home but is active as a volunteer for nonprofit and charitable organizations.

Her work in the nonprofit sector “was something I’ve never been involved in before,” she said. That didn’t stop her from helping an orchestral organization attain nonprofit status.

She’s also started taking trumpet lessons and, on occasion, plays with a UND group.

Hayes takes guitar and Chinese language lessons and, with his dad, fencing classes each week.

“We try to catch concerts and performances as often as possible,” she said. The family attends presentations and events sponsored by UND and other groups.

Natural curiosity

On the whole, those who choose to un-school trust their children’s self-motivation, natural curiosity and desire to learn.

Trust is a hallmark of un-schooling — trust that the child will pursue learning when he or she is ready. Usually, parents watch for signs of interest and initiative and then respond with resources, or they leave books and other materials around the home — a practice called “strewing” — that encourages learning.

Another hallmark of un-schooling is respect, as evidenced by children’s participation in decision-making.

“There’s a lot more participation by the kids in what they do,” she said.

Jenna, a 10th-grader, decided she wanted to study chemistry this year. However, the lab instruction presented a problem.

“We sat down and I said, ‘here’s the dilemma: you need to do the labs and I don’t want Bunsen burners in my kitchen,’” Muiderman said.

They decided Jenna would take an 11th-grade chemistry class at Thompson public school, which determined her math skills were strong enough, so she could handle the work.

“I always think: ‘How can I bring this child to a greater level of independence?’” she said.

“I say, ‘I’m going to take your hand through this process, but I’m not going to do it forever. How can I do this so I won’t always have to tell you?’

“But that’s not to say we don’t impose things on them.”

With his mother’s guidance, Hayes is studying grammar this year because, unlike his sister, he hasn’t shown much affinity for the subject.

“He needs nudging,” she said.

And she knows that grammar is a big part of the eighth-grade language arts program.

“We want them to do the things they love,” she said, “but we don’t want to send them into the world unprepared.”

Her children score in the 98th and 99th percentile in vocabulary, she said, “because they are exposed to good language all the time, not because we said, ‘let’s build a better vocabulary.’”

Efficient use of time

As Hayes and Jenna get older, the topics become more specific and the process looks less like un-schooling, she said. “Basically, you’re meeting your child where they are.”

A regular day for Hayes and Jenna begins around 8 a.m. and “every hour, there are certain topics that need to be covered,” Muiderman said. “They’re done around 2 or 3 p.m.,” leaving time for private music lessons and rehearsals or other interests.

Home-schoolers maintain that this approach to learning offers a more efficient use of time, compared to typical public school education, and allows more opportunity to explore.

“In our happenstance curriculum, the kids do lots of hands-on stuff,” Muiderman said.

Both kids have tried weaving, one of their mother’s favorite hobbies. They also sew and do wood-working.

When the Harry Potter movie debuted in local theaters, Hayes made wooden wands that he sold at a midnight showing of the film. He earned $200.

Jenna has made wooden clocks to give as Christmas gifts. She also takes private violin lessons and performs with the UND Chamber Orchestra.

Based on his interest in metal-working, Hayes signed up for an eighth-grade technical education class in Thompson recently but opted out because “the pace of the class wasn’t going to meet his needs,” she said.

Instead, the family found an expert in the area who’s teaching him, one on one.

“They are building the body of a go-cart,” she said.

In terms of un-schooling, Muiderman said, “This is stuff that nobody has to do. It’s just how our family does it.”

Her family chose un-schooling for “selfish reasons,” she said. “We want to have a lot more flexibility. We want to go places, and not just in the summer.

Freedom and flexibility were vital to their decision.

That coupled with the idea that “when they were young, we (as parents) were best equipped to understand them and know them and best meet their needs.”

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