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Sometimes I direct the kids’ days with much parentally-imposed structure, helping them find resources and jump hurdles, and sometimes I let them do all the easy stuff they enjoy, redirecting them to something passive like watching a documentary if I see they’re getting into trouble or wasting time. This kind of ebb and flow has been named “tidal homeschooling” by Melissa Wiley. Since my goal is to do as little “high tide” (much parental structure) as possible, I coined a new phrase: parent-directed unschooling.

Unlike other unschoolers, I think a lot of parental control over the educational process is necessary before a kid can direct his or her own education successfully. I kept the term unschooling mostly to reflect that we are not planning ahead, setting out what we will learn each month and week. It’s also an accurate statement of our goal — kid-directed education. However, I also like the resonant sense of the word, because in my heart (just not necessarily in our lives) the kids are in charge.

We did parent-directed unschooling first, and still do it best, with science.

Verdi (8th grade, 13) does mechatronics projects from books for beginners, from Instructables and other blogs, and MAKE and other magazines. He gives me lists of supplies he needs. He just joined a local public laboratory so he could have access to tools and experienced help, because dog knows I can’t troubleshoot mechatronics. I do this: prompt him to schedule time to work on his projects (I have to do this daily — he’s poky); insist that he press through a problem when he wants to quit (because he always wants to quit when it’s hard, and always figures it out and is excited again four minutes later); bug him til he gets me his lists of supplies; follow links around the internet to geeky things and when I see certain key words (which he has taught me — Pi, Arduino, DIY animatronics, etc.) I ask him if he wants to subscribe to those blogs/get those books/try those projects. When we’re at low tide, he does the kind of easy tinkering and daydreaming and reading that he is motivated independently for; when we’re on high tide, he works on it every day and makes leaps and strides across the tricky bits.

Bear (almost 11, 6th grade) has decided to build a solar-powered clubhouse and I expect that this will absorb both of his brothers as well. I got him books on carpentry and fort-building for children, subscribed to some blogs about DIY solar (meant for third world countries), found a volunteer to help him with the power tools, and put a Home Depot line onto our monthly budget. I’ll sit down with him and the books, ask him what actions are our first steps, and then make a plan with him. When we’re on high tide, every time he works on it, I’ll be working on it with him, learning as much as him. When we’re on low tide, that will be his older brother’s job.

Terran (almost 8, 2nd grade) is into alternative medicine, so I’ve subscribed to a bunch of how-to blogs about making essential oils and growing medical teas. I read the blogs myself, decide what sounds doable, gather the supplies, and then say to my kid, “hey, come help me [plant these seeds/harvest these herbs/pick out bottles for this tincture/whatever].” I try to let him do as much of it as he reasonably can, and I seek out kid-friendly resources like the Herb Fairies novels, but at this age project-based science is mostly modelling. I am learning this stuff and he is tagging along, watching me learn it.

I am hoping this year that we will be able to adopt a parent-directed unschooling approach to literature and composition that feels just as sturdy and well-worn as doing this for science now feels. That’s a blog post for a different day, though.