Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Unschooling on a Budget

Have you seen those articles proclaiming that unschooling is a privilege of the wealthy? In some respects I agree with them. The way our culture works right now means that in order to get ahead (or just break even) financially, a family must have at least two full-time working parents, and send their children to school. I know plenty of parents who openly call their children's school "babysitting". We are pressuring our governments for more affordable childcare, because, frankly, many of us can't afford to live without it. The privilege of staying home with our children is increasingly only for wealthy people, and homeschooling or unschooling requires a parent or other caregiver at home during the first ten-to-twelve years, or so. Add to that the fact that a great unschooling lifestyle includes a lot of exploration, which is often interpreted as travel and other such expensive experiences, and you have a very, very expensive proposition.

But I don't believe it has to be this way. If we want to change the way things are, somebody's got to take the first steps. It's not only the landscape of education that's changing, but the landscape of employment, shelter, and community - and there are some things about these changes that benefit each other.

Working from home: With the rise of huge corporations, working from home has become more difficult to imagine. For the past hundred or so years, entrepreneurship has dwindled, and schools raised children to fit into the "work force". But things are beginning to swing back again, as more of us want to work with our own passions, and to develop careers from our own hearts and minds and homes. Sometimes this means working for an employer remotely, as my husband does twice a week. Last time he went job-hunting he began his letter with the preface that his children were his priority, so he would always be home for dinner, and he would work from home at least twice a week. A few employers scoffed at him, but he quickly found someone who admired his integrity and openness, and he's been with them for ten years, now - home for dinner and working from home twice a week. Now that the children are older, I am managing to work a couple of days a week, and between the two of us we juggle the rides and meals and attention that our children need.

But there's also the option of quitting the corporate agenda entirely: Some people have in-home businesses, such as daycare, music teaching and production, graphic design, tutoring or farming, and these allow them not only to stay home with their children, but also to involve their children in these businesses... and after all... that's just another great experience to grow from! My children often join in or volunteer with the programs I teach, and they've also had some great experiences helping me with gallery shows and tours. I know kids who help at their parents' retail shops, and who accompany their parents to gardening job sites. All of these are worthwhile experiences that blur the lines of education, home, and employment.

Living frugally: Obviously, saving money is as important as earning it. My family is managing to save money in various ways, from owning one very used vehicle, to growing some of our own food and dispensing of expensive things like the dryer and single-pane windows. We are fortunate to rent a small house from my parents (which means that in the current horrifying rental squeeze we haven't lost our home or even had an increase), but I know of other families who have kept accommodations affordable by renting very tiny apartments in the city, moving to (cheaper) rural areas, home-sharing, or spending part of the year road-tripping while sub-letting their apartments. We also get most of our electronics from the free section at the recycling depot. Sure - they're not always great, but we've managed to supply our growing computer needs this way.

You might wonder how we afford all the wonderful adventures that are the supposed perks of unschooling. We don't! And we're OK with that. We attend mostly free events like festivals and wilderness outings, concerts put on by family and friends, and free (or by-donation) museum days. We also look for unconventional experiences like tours of industrial or education complexes, and sometimes we just walk into shops and look around. Explorative learning is everywhere - from the back of the pebble under your foot to the bottom of the receipt you find in the ditch. Keeping an open mind about what constitutes a 'learning experience' will make all kinds of free experiences absolutely valuable.

Less travel: While we know that some unschoolers afford fabulous journeys all over the world, we gave up on the idea of travel, with exceptions: I once managed to work one of my art projects into a road-trip, with free accommodations, which allowed us not only to visit all kinds of lovely places along the west coast, but also to attend our first and only unschooling conference... which was amazing. (Again, work, family-life and learning are one.) We have also been saving up since the children were babies to take them to Europe and meet their family, there. It's a long time coming, but it will be worth it when we finally go! And in between, we make a couple of small camping trips in our own area every year, and many fabulous day outings. There are so many wonderful things to discover in our own backyard, that we are a long way from having seen everything, and we haven't missed traveling at all!

Supplies and resources: As our kids explore and get interested in various things, it can be tempting to provide them with heaps of resources to support those interests. When my son spent years trying to teach himself parkour and rock-climbing, I looked into some lessons, or membership at a climbing gym. But we couldn't afford them, and that was just something we had to give up. These things happen, and we have to accept that not everything is within our reach. Going to school wouldn't have helped that, anyway, since we may have had more money, but less time.

We have made some larger purchases, like a microscope, accordion, and guitar, as well as music lessons and a (used) mountain bike. We've also found great ways of supplying ourselves through thrift shops, the recycling depot, and our local facebook exchange group. We have used many free programs for academic study online, from university courses to language learning programs to coding, math, writing and science programs. Joining online groups is a great way both to connect with others and to discover these resources. But amazing things often come from our own community. One kind local resident donated his telescope to our physics-impassioned son, and a neighbour with serious electrical skills made Tesla-coils with our kids and some friends. You never know what opportunities will pop up if you just look around and keep an open mind. What you find may not always be exactly what you thought you wanted, but sometimes it'll be better!

Yes - Unschooling requires sacrifice. But so does having children. And we assume that the rewards far outweigh the sacrifices. I gave up my career and a good chunk of future income in order to unschool. My husband and I committed to renting indefinitely, with no plans to purchase a home. But look at the big picture: here we are, happy with the way things are going, and without a regret in the world. It's just a matter of shifting priorities and learning to see the glistening rewards in the kaleidoscope of every day.

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