For families launching into the vast sea of unschooling, or even well in the midst of it, there are times when, if you are anything like me, you just don’t know where to start. I have been primarily unschooling my eleven-year-old twins from the beginning, and I have had many more times than I care to recall. Thus, I thought it would be helpful to write out a list of “fallback” activities, things that are relatively simple as well as creative and fun, and can be interwoven into specific projects or academic lessons your kids might be involved in. I came up with ten and, though there are more, they are perhaps the most reliable for our family.
1.) Games, games, games
We love games. I give my boys full credit for teaching me the wonder of games, for I was not raised with them. Throughout our unschooling years we have discovered an endless variety of educational board and card games, mostly picked up ridiculously cheap at the thrift store, on all manner of topics. Math, geography, spelling/sentence structure, science/ecology, even literature ( “The Play’s the Thing” is a test of your Shakespeare knowledge)
Some of our most beloved favorites:
Though we use an outdated version acquired second hand, we supplement with the internet to provide updated statistics on a given country (i.e. whether the country exists anymore) We have had many, many hours of fun with this.
“You’ve been Sentenced,”by McNeil Designs– A more recent acquisition, this is silly fun and teaches the basics of sentence structure as well as improvisational creativity.
“Equate,”by Conceptual Math Media– A clever math game for middle elementary can keep even lukewarm math students interested, at least for a while.
“Totally Gross: The Game of Science” by University Games-The name says it all. Manages to be educational while getting kids (and parents) to act out gross stuff. We used from about age 7-9.
Create your own: These are the very best. We created a writing game where we guess what someone is describing; all manner of spelling challenges; and of course creative versions of trivia! (see below)
2.) “Sports” trivia:
Yes, I know, this is a game, but I felt it had to have its own category. The word sports is in quotes because, although we started out using activities from recognizable sports (i.e. kicking a soccer ball into a goal, running around makeshift bases in a certain amount of time) it has evolved to include all manner of absurd physical challenges, from bouncing on a pogo stick for a determined time to standing on your head while being tickled by your brother. The idea is to combine learning, memorization, and discussion with a physical outlet. For example, if we watched a documentary I would ask related questions, and if an answer is wrong, the offender must complete the agreed upon challenge. Often I have ended up using fact sheets online, or pre-designed trivia challenges, to avoid having to create questions myself. This activity is much loved in our family and often leads to a juicy conversation on the subject (or others).
3.) “Kid News” Articles.
There are lots of good websites for news articles either designed for kids or selected as topics that might interest young minds. This is a quiet, easy activity that is almost always interesting and can lead to discussions or ideas for further research/ activities
4.) Documentaries (see a list of Netflix top 100 educational documentaries)
All kids love movies, even if they are educational. My kids are no different. When I first began the unschooling journey I was pretty skeptical about the value of passively watching a screen as a substantive educational tool. However, I quickly realized that my kids have a surprising (to me) knack for absorbing and utilizing information gleaned from documentary watching. Many times I have heard them come out with an incredible fact about the flight path of a bird or the physics of deep space, and when I ask where they learned such a thing (for I certainly hadn’t taught them) they look at me and patiently reply- “we watched a documentary on it, remember?”
5.) Make a play or skit
Although this may sound like a complex activity, it can definitely be adapted to interest levels and attention spans. A skit about the founding of your town, for example, can be summed up in a paragraph’s worth of lines. Of course, kids tend to get carried away with the magic of creating props, writing songs, and acting out silly scenes, so often these projects grow substantially as you go. My personal favorite was a 4 act play we created about the removal, and the eventual return of wolves to Yellowstone Park- all inspired by one short book!
I feel like I might be cheating to include this as an activity. Obviously a huge category, I’ll focus on a few that we have fallen back on as regulars.
Finger Knitting: My boys never seemed interested in knitting with needles, but they learned to finger knit quite young and it stuck. There are lots of seemingly useless cords of finger knitted yarn about, which then become incorporated into all types of projects. But they have also woven some wonderful things with finger knitting, including a baby blanket for their new brother. I like to pair this activity with listening to an educational audiobook- see #10.
Junk Sculpture: Nothing like a trip to the barn or the local re-store to get the imagination flowing!
Carving: We are lovers of old world crafts, (and fantasy) and we have many a hand-carved sword and wand about.
Clay creations: Clay is perfect for incorporating into all sorts of lessons; studying geography? Sculpt a slot canyon! History? A medieval castle!
I have one son in particular for whom baking has become a calming and rewarding hobby (he tried his hand at cooking, but quickly discovered he didn’t want to eat most of what he made) It is also perfect for blending with history, geography, science, and math. What kinds of flour do people use in other parts of the world? Why does the yeast bubble?
8.) Building kits:
Pretty self-explanatory, and endlessly entertaining. KEVA Contraptions, Geek&Co. Airplane and other kits, Fat Brain Toys Catapult Workshop and Chaos Machines, there have been so many. All are easily found online and have various focuses. The challenges here are ( a.) keeping track of small parts (KEVA is slightly easier as most of their pieces are bigger and wooden), and (b.) helping your kids read and follow precise instructions. This comes easier to some of us than others (lol) so, parent, know thyself.
9.) “Find five new things”
A personal favorite of mine, the boys are usually less enthusiastic initially, and almost always come back jazzed about at least one new thing. Weather permitting type scavenger hunt, you can be broad; “find five things you’ve never seen before” or get more specific; “find a birds nest, two kinds of scat, a butterfly and a sedimentary rock”. Explore, notice, discover!
This has been a lovely discovery I didn’t expect. Most libraries these days have a digital component with a wealth of audiobooks, and we love to browse the children’s non-fiction or historical fiction sections. We have been delighted and amazed by stories of experiences profoundly different from ours, in modern, historical and ancient times. As mentioned, I think it pairs perfectly with handicraft. Just a few that have stood out:
“The Lions of Little Rock” by Julia Whelan: An incredible story about two friends and their families living through desegregation. My boys can’t wait to listen to it again!
”The Orphan of Ellis Island” by Elvira Woodruff: Captivating and adventurous, it’s almost as much fun as fantasy. A 12-year-old boy stumbles through a portal on a trip to Ellis Island and ends up in turn of the century Italy where he meets his ancestors.
“The Entertainer and the Dybbuk” by Banna Rubinow. Just after WWII, a ventriloquist’s dummy becomes possessed by the ghost of a Jewish boy killed by Nazi’s. A unique way of approaching a grim topic, it manages to be humorous and interesting as well as insightful poignant.
Though certainly not a complete list, I’m hoping this will help spur some ideas and provide a helpful “toolkit” for days when you’re feeling a little lost.
I always wished I had one.
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