Unschooling on the Islands

Moving to El Nido, although seemingly so natural to us, is considered a very unconventional decision to many, especially for the average Filipino family from big urban cities like Manila. What is even more radical for most is our current philosophical and pragmatic approach to education. We’re currently unschooling the children.

Virtually unheard of in this country, “What is unschooling?”, you might ask. The term “unschooling” was coined by an educator named John Holt in 1977. It’s been around for a few decades now and has gained such momentum around the globe because many families have converted from traditional schooling to homeschooling and then eventually choosing to unschool in their journey. It is the rejection of the traditional school format. It means that we have chosen not to send our children to school and do not follow a curriculum. “How do they learn?”, you may wonder. Essentially, child-led learning at their own pace works! I firmly believe that young children are naturally curious, voracious learning machines. They just cannot help but learn 24/7. It is in their nature to do so. If children didn’t, they would never learn how to crawl, walk, run, say their first words and so on and so forth. Leave them to keenly observe the people, creatures and world around them and they will master these and much more on their own without prompting. “Every child is born a genius”, Albert Einstein once said. “... but the process of living de-geniuses them.” added R. Buckminster Fuller.

Truth be told, Unschooling was not in my original plan for me and my kids. I was set to homeschool my son using the Waldorf curriculum because he was in a Waldorf school in Manila up until before we moved to the islands. The Waldorf or Steiner school follows a beautiful, wholistic non-traditional curriculum and perfectly suits our family’s values. I fell in love with the whole Amish-like, plastic-free lifestyle early on when my son was just an infant that it also very much influenced my all-natural bath and body business, our food & health choices and general outlook in raising my son in the most organic, nature-loving way possible. The challenges were high though and other well meaning family and friends thought it was definitely going against the grain because we lived in the city where faster is deemed better than the “slow living” movement. 

Despite the usual city challenges, my son thrived for many years in this close knit kindred community. I would have loved to continue where we had left off but sadly, there is currently no Waldorf school in El Nido. Taking this curriculum to the province of Palawan, albeit a homeschool set up, would be the next best thing, I thought. So, I purchased a Waldorf-inspired Earthschooling lifetime curriculum online for all my children, attended an Early Childhood Waldorf Education training by our authorised local mentors of Asia before making the big move to El Nido and finally attempted homeschooling a few months after giving birth to my third baby. Call me crazy for extreme multi-tasking; teaching my 10 year old while keeping my 3 year old entertained and caring for a newborn infant all on my own. It was actually working until it no longer did.

My son was suddenly resisting any information I was giving him, no matter how much creative effort I poured into it. We would bump heads and get on each others nerves so often that I finally did question where we were at. Homeschooling felt so forced and I sensed that our relationship was turning sour and it was no longer worth it to go on this way at the expense of our precious mother & son bond. I meditated, researched and read and realized that once again that he was still going through an important developmental milestone. They call it “Crossing the Rubicon” in Waldorf terminology. In layman’s terms, it means that the usual sweet 7 year old will turn into a little rebel by the time he or she turns 9 or 10. They say that you get a little sneak peek into their adolescent years at this stage. What is highly encouraged is that the parent or teacher is consistent with their love, understanding, boundaries and is a master at their craft or knowledge for the children will undoubtedly question you with everything that you do. Looking back, it seemed accurate for many of the children I observed- whether or not they went to a Waldorf school. This certainly was the time I started questioning ‘the authorities” around me back when I was a child myself. If I were to be completely honest with my son, I would tell him of the time I did give up at one point in high school, not because I wasn’t intelligent enough, but because i simply was no longer interested in the subject matters because I felt it didn’t resonate. Same banana. 

I did further readings and researched more, and then finally found the Unschooling educational approach in online articles and blogs. To me, this whole new world of fresh perspective into a very relaxed approach to education and the ultimate change of gears from all the expectations of myself and my son is just what we needed as a transitioning family. 

But first, I needed to deschool which is recommended before formally Unschooling. This meant that I needed to let go of all institutionalized thought processes that has been ingrained in me for all the years of my existence. It is somehow the painful process of de-programming and unlearning that life is not made up of individual hourly subjects, forced memorizations of any kind whatsoever, no matter how beautiful the curriculum is. This phase takes time, sometimes a whole lot of it. It forces us to relax, have fun in your day to day activities with whatever you and your children want to do and just have fun to gain the trust of the child and to bring out all the sparks of curiosity back. Once children are truly curious and engaged in life’s moments, learning comes effortlessly again just like their early infant to toddler years. 

So, for the last half year, we have been deschooling as a family. No required readings or works..even art! Anything that you must force upon a child will not work because then the idea is not uniquely theirs.  Suggestions are welcome but the drive to do anything must come from the child so that they may truly own the experience. To be clear, I am still somehow Waldorf-inspired in my approach. I do not adhere to the radical unschooling belief of giving completely free reign access to electronic media (obvious overstimulation of the senses for sensitive children), not giving proper sleeping hours, diet, etc. I still fully parent, and believe that there is an appropriate age for giving them full responsibility towards making those decisions for themselves. I still urge him to eat his greens, and give him chores to do because I believe in forming good habits and healthy rhythm or internal clocks which will hopefully rub and carry on until adulthood. 

I have personally been catching authentic AHA! moments of my son learning without force or pressure. I can almost guarantee he is like a sponge getting as much information as possible from every conversation he has with anyone he meets. He definitely is getting stronger in his Taekwondo classes and at the moment he absolutely loves comics and has learned so much in terms of reading, writing and spelling through that alone. I could say he is addicted to reading because of his exposure to comics to the point that he would much rather stay home with a comic book than join us because he is completely immersed in what he is reading. 

I like to call my son Mr. Personality because he is one very sociable young 11 year old with a very active imagination and a story-teller at heart. He isn’t afraid to talk to anyone about anything under the sun. My husband laughs all the time and says he is too friendly but instead of looking at it as a setback, I remind him that it is an asset. How can this gift of extreme friendliness help him succeed in life? Many adults fail at this important skill of confidence in communication. In the future, he might be a TV show or radio host, a YouTuber, a public relations officer, a tour guide, an artist. Perspective is everything.

“Speak to your children as if they are the wisest, kindest, most beautiful and magical humans on earth, for what they believe is what they will become. – Brooke Hampton” 

There are moments that I still catch myself in the old paradigm at times of wanting to hurry and teach what I think is proper to know at this stage but that is because it sometimes takes years and years of deschooling before finally getting the groove of unschooling, experts say. I still wrestle with it. My son has his feel good days and uncooperative grouchy days, just like us adults do! To me, unschooling is a mindful and conscious daily practice of ultimately respecting your child’s boundaries, decisions and natural pace of learning which is a huge lesson for me because parents like to secretly compare and constantly knit-pick and stress because we think our children define who we are-- whether we admit it or not. 

Celebrating the uniqueness of your child is a wonderful life long lesson. Albert Einstein once wrote, “Everyone is a genius but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” I should really print and post that somewhere visible in our room as a constant reminder everyday of what unschooling is all about. Unschooling may not be for everyone because of lifestyle and belief differences, but this learning approach has some basic principles on parenting that every family should practice.

Monica Manzano

Check out more of Monicas adventures on instagram @monicamanifests