Unschooling With Box Curriculum

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“Guess WHAT!?!” I said to my son when he was three.

“What?” He asked with glee. I went on to tell him about his very first trip to stay with his sitter. I told how he could take some fun stuff with him, and how he was going to get to play there. We had previously gone over to meet with and visit them beforehand, and he had a chance to play and get to know them while we talked.

Unschooling With Box Curriculum - By Shelley

His eyes glowed. “Really?!?” He excitedly decided to get a few of his things ready to go. The next time he went, I made the mistake of telling him the night before. From then on, any time he has gone to the sitter, I have had to keep it a secret until we were on the way, or if he needed to move more quickly so we could be on time.

When it came to homeschooling, I led him into it with delight and excitement, just as I had with the babysitting experience. I started with a preschool workbook set that cost around $25, just to test the waters. During that time is when I began discovering that “school at home,” as it is called, was not for us. The clearest way to describe what was happening was that “getting through the material” was crowding out natural learning and curious questions.

We moved on to a fully integrated curriculum later that year. By late spring, I realized we had to be done with it, or my son would lose his love of learning, and I would lose my love of teaching. Some material, he flat out didn’t “finish.” He had advanced beyond it. In some areas, such as reading, we were consistently defaulting to more advanced material than what was being presented.

In fact that seems to be the theme, flavor, or defining characteristic of our particular brand of unschooling:

Consistently color outside the lines and go beyond.

In other areas, such as math, he was in step. I don’t think I’ll ever use a fully-integrated program again. (At the time, we had a family situation that made it helpful to have something to fall back upon, and since the program we used had videos, my son enjoyed it.)

Right now we are using Bob Jones boxed curriculum with all the bells and whistles, including video, for math. My son was so excited as he sat with me for an hour organizing the stuff “from the box.” We popped out manipulatives and organized them. He colored the cute label for his daily worksheet notebook, and created tens bars with legos. He watched the parents training video with me, and asked about what the word “abstract” meant. He marveled that I knew exactly how many fake pennies were on the pop-out manipulative page, and I wowed him with a preview of the fact that you can multiply if you know how many you have in each column and row of evenly numbered items. He carefully filed the fake money kit under “m” in our accordion folder and argued with me about whether or not to mix the colors of the geometric shapes.

I sent him into my office to put away his markers after coloring and decorating his math worksheet notebook. A science reader caught his eye while he was in there:

“Mommy! I didn’t know we had this! I’m going to take this to my room so I can read it!”


A few days later, my son came dashing downstairs and cried, “I saw something in my science book that I want to do right now!” It was a little taste test experiment, which we promptly did.

As far as the math goes, I expect him to finish more quickly than “the plan.” When he finishes a lesson, he usually prepares the manipulatives and worksheets for the next day himself or with a little help from me. That was actually a  job which the curriculum writers suggested be done by the parent. (Yay for unschooling!)

The math concepts are right at his skill level. His challenge (and delight) is focusing and following with the manipulates, organizing them, and really just the whole process. These skills and challenges go beyond memorizing rote math facts. I have to say I am so relieved. I was very nervous about purchasing an entire curriculum again, given our learning style, but felt like I needed one thing to anchor our day as we unschool our way through unschool. Besides, it isn’t the only math learning he gets. Ironically, he has to count and do calculations in order to organize his counters and manipulatives for math class, and we “accidentally” engage in math learning outside of “math time.” It’s really about the ABILITY to follow a system and the enjoyment of ownership. He was so thrilled to present his completed work to me today. I never once popped into his room to “help” him while he did math. The only questions he had were technical concerns about the DVD. (Incidentally, I didn’t run to his aid. I simply suggested something that might fix the problem with the DVD and he handled it himself!)

On another note, we have been reading through a turn-of-the-century era history reader and talking about geographic and historical facts from it. My son was shocked when I referred to it as “school.” He hadn’t realized that it was. After all, we were reading under a blanket fort, and having fun looking at maps…

I was sooo tempted to use a spelling curriculum, but a little research and trial runs showed me that I could just play games with him and talk about how words are spelled as we read together. Did I mention that my son loves to read? He likes to try to bounce a ball and spell at the same time! Barrels of laughs is what that is!

We use the words “school” and “grade” around our house. I even had a mini graduation from kindergarten (with the curriculum he didn’t finish) complete with cap and gown pictures.
The cultural impact of traditional schooling as we know it is part of our culture and I see no reason why conversation with strangers should be unnecessarily uncomfortable:

“Are you in kindergarten?

“Yes, I’ve been learning to write cursive and I’m having trouble.”

“Really? That’s hard for me too!”

The grade level reference is just a matter of acknowledging progress and it is culturally relevant.

The first time he got asked if he liked his teachers, my son was stumped. Later, I reminded him that he liked the teacher in the video with his boxed math curriculum, that he liked the piano teacher on the videos he watches to learn piano, that he likes his teacher at homeschool co op, and of course, he LOVES me!

If you are a radical unschooler with lots of experience, you may be offended at our obviously classical streak. Yes, I am going actually teach my son that “when we talk about words and sentences and what they are like, that is called grammar.” In other words, I am going to teach him how to classify or organize his learning by subject. I see it as a gift to him that he has organizing skills. That’s a real life skill, you know!

Oh, and I should mention that when he was a toddler, he arranged his blocks in neat rows. He didn’t get the orderly gene from me, that’s for sure!

We teach obedience, and mastery, character and being self-driven too. We are out of order and backwards and we like it. My son knew how to say “chinook” at two, and recently learned the spelling of the word “camouflage,” out of grade-appropriate order. We currently have a basket FULL of library books which were chosen based on questions my son had. My son also reads straight from the King James Bible, takes Chinese lessons in a  very straight-laced, boring classroom setting (with tutoring from me), music theory in co-op, and it’s just SOOOO much fun!

We temper our joyful chaos with some mad time-management and organizing skills. This means that I don’t do everything for my son, and our days are organized enough that we have room for learning and playing.
If you’re an unschooler, have you ever used a box curriculum in your homeschool?

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