How Unschooling Families Leverage Digital Games and Connectivity

To many, unschooling is a radical approach that is practiced in the exotic outer rings of education. Its rejection of formal education in favor of keeping the kids at home and the freedom to completely direct their own learning raises many questions. How will they socialize? What if they spend all day playing and never choose to do math? How will they ever get into college and find jobs?

All good questions, but the story of how one unschooling family followed their kids lead and reaped the benefits of the online world may give even the staunchest critic pause.

Chris Crowell and His Family

When Chris Crowell was offered a job at video game studio in Montreal, Quebec, it didn’t take much to convince his wife, Katherine Suckow, and their two young sons to pack up their lives in California and make the move. They quickly took to their new life abroad, but they became disillusioned by their sons’ experience at their new school. It wasn’t only that the Quebec government mandated that they take their classes in French, a language that neither boy spoke.

“Me and school just didn’t get along,” remembers Finn, who was 8-years-old at the time and now studies art in college. “When I was a kid I had horrible mood swings, I’d go into depressive bouts and the stress of a school environment only made it worse. I just didn’t learn well in a school environment: teachers would tell the class something and it would just pass right through me.” His older brother Morgan, then 10, had a similarly disappointing experience.

Unschooling, Plugged

The family pulled their kids from school and tried homeschooling, but it wasn’t a good fit. “I quickly discovered, school at home wasn’t much more engaging than school at school,” said Suckow. Further research led them to unschooling, and they never looked back.

Unschooling practitioners consider it a “learning philosophy” rather than a “teaching method” and it differs from homeschooling in that learning is almost exclusively led by the child’s natural curiosities. The approach resists a rigorous methodology, and it operates within a broad spectrum of practices to accommodate a child’s diverse interests. Increasingly, these interests are leading kids online.

“From an academic perspective, I don’t think I missed out on much,” said Finn. “I learn well on my own and am naturally curious about all order of things, so with the help of the internet any topic that piqued my interest was readily available for me to research. I remember talking about string theory when I was 15 and contemplating complex ideas I had heard about from people like Stephen Hawking and Lawrence Krauss.”

A 2015 study by Peter Gray and Gina Riley followed the post-secondary education and careers of 75 adults unschoolers and found that, despite their lack of formal credentials, many successfully entered and completed college level programs. They tended to enter jobs in the creative arts or undertake entrepreneurial ventures, two areas of emphasis in contemporary education discourse to address an uncertain employment future.

Connecting for Community and Learning

Many unschooling families like Suckow’s parlay digital and online resources to support their children’s self-directed explorations, but also rely on the internet to connect with other unschoolers. A Google search of “unschooling” yields pages of dedicated blogs, articles, websites and forums. These online resources have established a vast and supportive global network of likeminded families, academics, and practitioners who would otherwise be geographically isolated.

“Most challenging was finding other unschooling families to hook up with. We lived in Quebec when we started and the community where we lived was very small.  Luckily, the boys still had school friends that they ran around with. I was involved in a variety of online unschooling groups to keep connected,” said Suckow. The boys also made and socialized with friends from around the world, which exposed them firsthand to other countries, cultures and societies.

From a learning perspective, the internet is a virtually limitless resource. Wikipedia and YouTube alone offer several lifetimes worth of content to nourish any interest a curious child may want to pursue.

“YouTube has probably been my biggest resource,” said Finn. “There are some really great content creators out there who are incredibly talented at explaining both simple and highly complex ideas. You’ve got channels like Veritasium and SmarterEveryDay that make great education videos about physics, math, and engineering. The beauty of the internet is that even if you don’t like YouTube, or you learn better by reading instead of watching and listening, there are any number of other online outlets for learning.”

The Power of Play

Play and games can also factor into the equation, as many unschooling families are passionate about the education value of video games. A striking example is Unschoolers Creative City, a Minecraft server that hosts over 7,000 unschoolers from around the world. Suckow believes in the power of play and kept an open mind, even when it came to a violent game like Call of Duty.

“Morgan was really involved in playing Call of Duty, a World War II first person shooter, which led to his interest in World War II. We watched movies about World War II; he read about it online, and we went to the War Museum in Ottawa. He joined a re-enactment group and also the Air Cadets. He also went to work as an English aid at an alternative school in Germany for a few months. All this because of the video game Call of Duty. You never know where playing a game will lead you.” Morgan went on to study video and film production in college.

Finn also credits gaming as a vital component of his education. He was deeply invested in Garry’s Mod, a highly flexible “sandbox physics game” whose community of users collaborate, build, modify and create content using a series of tools and assets.

“I learned a lot about how games are made, both in the conceptual phase and the more meticulous programming phase. Even in the game the tools you were given were all for the purpose of making something. It was kind of like a much more complex Minecraft before Minecraft was a thing,” remember Finn. He also had a few unintended grammar lessons along the way. “My primary mode of communication was via text, and we all know how much people love to correct other people’s spelling and grammar online. Despite the pedantic and mocking nature of correcting someone for using ‘your’ instead of ‘you’re’, these people actually taught me a lot about spelling and grammar as a whole.”

Would Finn consider unschooling his own kids? “I’d let the kid decide. If they want to be unschooled, sure, if they want to go to school, sure. Each child is an individual and learns differently, what’s important is to give them the chance and freedom to see where and how they learn best.”

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