Hand-writing – that is all!

In response to a recent, lengthy, and at times, heated, discussion on Unschooling Q & A on Facebook, I am inspired to write a post about hand-writing.

Not ‘writing’, but the actual physical act of picking up an implement (biro, pencil, etc) and using it on a medium (paper, cardboard, whatever!) to make words. Hand-writing.

This card was written by my 11 year old a couple of weeks ago for Father’s Day. I have his complete permission to share it – he knows why i’m doing so.

Does the level of his writing ability shock you? Are you newer to unschooling, thinking ‘Agggh! I couldn’t cope if my 11 year old wrote like a 4 year old on a bad day!’ Are you thinking, ‘But hand-writing is an essential skill!’.

If you are thinking any of those things, you are completely normal! And I certainly would have thought all those things myself when I was new to unschooling (probably a few years into it, to be honest!).

Our kids aren’t us!
I grew up in the 1970’s. I went to a private all girls school. We wrote with ink pens. Hand-writing was a BIG deal. There was always some unspoken competition about who had the best and neatest hand-writing in the class (it was never me, though my writing isn’t terrible!).

I still have that lump on the middle finger of my right-hand that you get from writing all the time. That’s a deformity that came in school and never went – not great, when you think about it! Most people my age have it.

Of course, with the advent of typewriters, then word-processors, then computers, laptops, iPads, hand-writing has become less and less used. Less and less important to every day life. I write my shopping lists on my phone. Even a lot of schools don’t focus on hand-writing skills anymore.

But, regardless, many people my age still think hand-writing is an important skill.

The person who wrote the post on Unschooling Q & A thought so for a variety of reasons. Her main argument was that people remember better when they write, compared to when they type notes (which, if it’s true, is only really important in school or college, and we are unschoolers…but still…). She referred to a study. I’ll get to that later.

She tried to convince us she used hand-writing in her real life all the time. But refused to give any examples.

Mostly, she was shocked at the notion that her son (11 – same age as Kai) might NEVER want to learn how to hand-write. This thought hadn’t occurred to her. She thought eventually it would just ‘come’.

The truth about hand-writing

In a house full of books, full of words, full of interesting people and things, reading will just ‘come’ – one way or another. Once a kids brain connects the words to their meaning and sounds – reading does just ‘come’ – and kids get better at it because they are surrounded by words, everywhere, all the time.

But, hand-writing isn’t like that. Hand-writing – to become neat and easy, requires repetitive use – linking the muscles and movement of the hand and remembering how to form letter shapes. This is known as ‘cognitive automaticity’ – the ability to make letters without concious effort. It doesn’t just ‘come’ without practice. Kind of like playing the piano. Or learning to skateboard. Or learning to swim. Or anything that needs a physical practice for you to become fast and good at it, and for it to be easy and ‘automatic’.

There are some studies that conclude that reading and hand-writing are linked. You can’t be good at reading if you aren’t hand-writing. I’m here to tell you (with my sample size of 1! But I know many other unschoolers too!) that that is bunk! Kai is a VERY fluent reader, and very good at spelling. He writes well, in complete sentences, and is using punctuation and correct grammar, all the time to his friends, texts, in game.

Not being able to hand-write has had no observable detrimental impact on his other literacy skills.

There are some studies that more generally say that kids learn to read when their manual coordination improves – when the left and right sides of the brain start talking to each other. That could be true, but that just comes with time. And hand-writing is not the only way of developing fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination! (we all know video games are awesome for that!).

But aren’t kids going to need to hand-write at some point?

The answer to that, honestly, is probably ‘yes’ – but not very often, and certainly not until they are older – maybe as teens? And, as we progress into a more technology driven future – less and less.

In the recent discussion, Jenny Cyphers asked people to list when they had needed to use hand-writing in the past two years. I have further split them into potentially ‘no other option than hand-writing’ and ‘could have used another option’ (like typing, printing, etc).

Here are some of the responses:
No other option

  • Doctors forms
  • Dentist forms
  • Immigration forms at airports
  • Application forms for licenses, etc (sometimes there is a ‘fill in online’ and print option, though)
  • Marking student work (tutors/teachers)
  • Signing deeds for new house, signing a cheque, signing credit card transactions

Could have used another option

  • Thank you notes, birthday cards
  • Grocery lists and other lists

None of the ‘No other option’ apply to kids. Possibly teenagers would need to fill in some forms – probably it’s likely a parent could fill it in, but the teen might need to sign.

A real life example that came up last year from our own lives – Kai’s passport needed updating. He last got one when he was 5 – they run out after 5 years. When we got the application form, it said he needed to sign it himself, or else we needed to get a doctors letter saying he was ‘incapable’ of signing.

So. We didn’t want to go down the road of the doctor letter. But…working on a signature was potentially going to be a big deal. After asking on Always Learning and getting some great ideas from Joyce, Sandra and others, we came up with a game plan for a signature based on his 3 initials.

He practised for a day or two, until he could mostly replicate it, and signed his passport application. We took it in to the Post Office. He had to sign again – in front of the Post Office guy – because some of his signature was out of the lines!


He used that same signature to open a bank account in his own name earlier this year. He says he can’t remember how to sign it now….but if he needs to, he’ll practice again.

So. We already know there are going to be instances when Kai needs to write, himself. Right now, they are very, very few and far between. In his 11 years, it’s only come up as a necessity twice, and we managed!

When and how will they learn to hand-write?

In the post that started all this – the Mom was looking for reassurance that her kid would eventually learn to write, the way he’d learnt to read. She wanted us to tell stories of how our kids had eventually come to writing.

Many people (myself included) couldn’t reassure her in that way. Some people with grown children also reported that their adult kids don’t really like writing, and find it hard. Honestly, i’m fairly sure we all know adults who went to school who are like that!

She said (in reference to when he’d pick up and/or need hand-writing) ‘I never considered ‘Never’ as an option’.

I get it. That is scary to contemplate! Especially when you went to school when we did and hand-writing was a big deal. I needed to deschool big-time around writing..and (shame, shame!) there have been times in the past where I tried to get Kai to write – cards, notes, shopping lists…

But I think, in reality, ‘never’ is NOT really a valid option. There will be times our kids, as they get older, WILL need to write for something or another. And they’ll manage. It won’t be fun. It won’t be easy. It won’t be neat. But they’ll do it.

And for some of them, for whatever reason, they WILL find a reason to improve. Maybe for a job, maybe for fun (calligraphy, etc), maybe just because they want to. And if they do, it’ll be fast. It won’t take 12 years of schooling and forced writing.

I currently tutor high school science (long-story – I know, I’ve been away a while!).

Here are some writing samples from my tutor kids – the top one is a 13 year old, the bottom two are 16 year olds.

These are kids that have been in the system of forced hand-writing for years. And I have absolutely no doubt that if Kai wanted to improve his hand-writing, in whatever way worked best for him, he could be at their level in days. Not weeks, certainly not years. He’d catch up – and fast! (and, of course, just think what your local GP’s handwriting looks like!)

What the research says

I honestly can’t find a lot of research on why hand-writing is or isn’t important. The Mom in the discussion cited an article that said they found college students retained more information from lectures if they hand-wrote notes, instead of typed them.

Firstly, even if that is true, it doesn’t apply to my 11 year old (nor hers!)…

Secondly, lets have a better look at the methods and data in that research (which you can find here, though it’s only the abstract unless you have a way to get the full text).

Their main ‘argument’ was that students using computers didn’t retain as much information when asked later as students who hand-wrote notes.

In fact, if you look at their results, the laptop users showed slightly higher scores (though not statistically significant) on factual-recall questions. The note takers did better on ‘conceptual-recall’ questions (which wouldn’t relate to performance in University as it’s almost all factual-recall in tests) – conceptual-recall was confounded by which lecture the participant watched also.

The rest of the results don’t really relate to any kind of memory performance, just a shonky correlation between number of words and type of medium (pen or laptop). So, in my opinion, I don’t think this is a well designed study, and I don’t find the results at all convincing.

Also, it was conducted in 2014, on then college age students – so an average age of about 20, let’s say. Those kids were therefore in primary school in the early 2000’s. Hand-writing would have still been predominant. There were no iPads, no iPhones. Computers and the internet were basically in their infancy. Those kids did NOT have the experience our kids are having.

I’m not the only one to question the study. This article examines the research and concludes ‘What can or should we tell students concerning laptop notetaking? We can say that based on a single study, in which students listened to short 15-20 minutes lectures on general topics, laptop notes tended to be more verbatim than handwritten notes.’

‘More verbatim’ is literally the only concrete finding. Laptop users wrote notes that were almost exactly the same as what they heard. Hand-writers didn’t have time to do that.

When I was at Uni, I took hand-written notes. But the only way I remembered what was in those notes, was to pour over them again the night before exams (and then promptly forget them again the next week!). I can’t compare because I didn’t have a laptop, but I can’t imagine the method of note taking in lectures made one jot (pardon the pun!) of a difference in the exam…it was revision the night before that did that!

Here is another article examining the same research.

Aside from this, I can’t find much else. If anyone still reads this blog and finds more, I’d love to see it.

Peoples highly romanticised personal opinions!
I can find plenty personal opinion though. Mostly from people my age (or even older!), reminiscing and romantacising hand-writing, the ‘good-old days’, and grappling at finding reasons why it’s still important.

Take this article in The Guardian, for example. The author states he had ‘posters of Debbie Harry and Kenny Dalglish’ – that makes me pretty certain we are of the same vintage, growing up in the same country! I also have old school books in my Mum’s house. I had a much less romantic reaction to mine, though!

To begin with, I thought we were on the same wavelength. The author said after he posted ‘why is hand-writing important’ on Twitter, “Everyone agreed that, yes, handwriting was important but few could pin it down to any one reason: and I think that is a problem when we are trying to convince our students.”

Then came …a paragraph of apparently ‘irrefutable’ proof that handwriting was important.

“it is ludicrous to say that teaching handwriting is irrelevant. There is far too much evidence out there which reveals the cognitive benefits. Handwriting improves the development of motor-skills and is absolutely crucial in enhancing hand/eye coordination. ….. the practice of slowing down and thinking about our thoughts in order to write them with a pen or pencil uses more brain power. Educationally I think the case is irrefutable.”

Yeah? Nope! There is little to no evidence that ‘reveals a cognitive benefit’. Hand-eye coordination can be developed in a myriad of ways, not least using a keyboard and mouse for various things (Kai’s also been doing a lot of whittling and wood burning…nothing wrong with his hand-eye coordination!). And I find no compelling evidence that writing things down with a pen uses more brain power.

But later in the article, it comes down to this – the author sees handwriting as a ‘very personal piece of art’. It’s a flowery view, clouded by his own upbringing and use of hand-writing in an age where he had no other choices.

Hand-writing can be quite beautiful. I love calligraphy (to look at – i’m not that keen on trying it out – though I do have pens!). But it’s not a good reason to force a kid to learn it when it doesn’t apply to their actual real lives.

It’s not the view our kids will have. They will probably see something completely different as a ‘very personal piece of art’ – their Facebook page. Their YouTube channel art. Their tattoo’s! Their piercings! Who even knows what they’ll look back on in nostalgia in 20 years!? But I’m fascinated to find out!

A brief Quora thread agrees with me, though it’s not particularly illuminating!

For another interesting view, and also some interesting history on cursive, from an educator – check out this piece in the New York Times.

Though she says handwriting doesn’t matter, she does cite the study I already critiqued, and another study involving only 15 kids, which isn’t even worth thinking about – that’s hardly even a sample size!

In the end – is it affecting my kid right now?

Kai doesn’t live in a vacuum. He’s out and about – with me, with his friends. He sees me write. He watches me fill in forms. He’s had to use his own signature at least twice already.

He KNOWS people hand-write and sometimes there are no other options. Right now, he couldn’t care less if you think his hand-writing is terrible! He knows it is…it’s unimportant to his life and his self-esteem – his self-confidence is good enough that he’s fine with letting random strangers see and judge his writing!

Not being able to hand-write isn’t affecting him …if it did, we’d figure it out. And as I said, I am absolutely 100% certain that if he needed to improve his hand-writing for whatever reason, he could do that in a day or two.

As an the parent of an unschooler – my goal is peace, joy and learning.

So, do *I* think not being able to hand-write RIGHT NOW is affecting Kai’s life so much that I need to force him to learn it? Even if it puts strain on our relationship, disrupts our joyful life, takes him away from the things he’s learning right now? No – absolutely not. I see hand-writing as about as relevant to his life as knowing algebra and balancing chemical equations – not relevant at all. And, similar to both those things, it’s something he can learn very fast, should he ever want or need to.

If anyone is reading – I’d love to know whether other people use hand-writing (with no other option) more often in their day to day life? And when and why has independant hand-writing been required of your kids?




Learn Nothing Day 2016

Our 7th Learn Nothing Day. Read that – 7th!!! Holy cow on a hill! I just went back through the blog (painful at the best of times!) and last year I missed reporting…so, hey, maybe we actually DID learn nothing last year?!

This year. not so much. I woke up to panic in the house. Kai had a virus pop up page come on his laptop. So – panic stations…download Malwarebytes, Avast, install adblocker, run scans…fail, then…in the non-learning department. Kai learnt that watching Kiss Cartoon is fraught with pop-up threats!

He then skyped with friends and played Overgrowth for a few hours. Maybe he didn’t learn anything…yeah, nah.

Then we decided we’d just give up, and make it a normal Sunday….so we went for a drive to a waterfall we hadn’t been to before (disaster right there!), hiked up it. Took photos. ID’d plants (my new hobby, to the immense boredom of everyone else!). Went back down to the coffee shop for hot chocolate and played some Pokemon Go (and caught our first Pikachu!)

Steavenson Falls – one of Victoria’s highest drop waterfalls – 122m (sorry if you learnt something new!)


Laccaria species fungi at the top of the waterfall (yeah, now I’m just showing off!)

It’s 7.13pm. Kai’s playing Overgrowth again – sorting his stats, resources, trying to level up. I’m about to watch Masterchef, so bound to learn something new too….Kai’s also reading Harry Potter before bed….and each night learning something different in the story that he’s seen a billion times in the movie (mostly that Dudley is even more obnoxious in the book, it seems!).

Oh! And we just played 3 rounds of TimeLine – I lost all 3, as usual…but learnt a heap…and so did Kai. We googled what started WW1. How foolish!? Surely that could have waited till tomorrow…

So. 7 years fail. At least we are consistent ;)

For now, I’m sharing this graph here as it’s the best place for everyone to see it.
Data is still coming in, and so it may change.

Reading age in unschooled children (from a survey on Always Learning Yahoo Group – currently n=85 children) spanned from 3 years, to 16.5 years. Reading was defined as ‘reading fluently -able to read anything they wanted to easily.’

As far as could be determined – all children included were always unschooled (Kinder/pre-school wasn’t counted, as it was unlikely to have hampered the reading process too much, but no children who had gone to school from first grade onward were included).

The mean age of reading is currently 8.4 years, the mode is 8, and median is 8.5 years.

32% of children were reading before the age of 8. Nearly 50% of children learnt to read between the ages of 8 and 10. About 17% learnt to read after the age of 10.


Another post!? I must have free time on my hands! And I do. And part of that is covered in this post!

I was also inspired (if you can call it that!) to post about helping and partnering with our kids as they grow up, because I suddenly kept seeing posts and comments about ‘protecting our children’s childhoods’ in unschooling groups and blogs.  Mostly this seems to involve photo’s of kids playing in nature in barefeet, not a ‘screen’ to be seen, and also ‘protecting’ them from the big bad world, over-sexualization and hiding them from all things to do with sex and sexuality!

So. Here’s the thing. We can’t protect our children’s childhoods, as much as we (me included!) might want to! We can’t know what will happen. Many things are out of our hands. What we CAN do, though, is help our children enjoy their childhoods right now. Help them follow their passions, see them laugh and play, and help them grow into awesome adults along the way.

I said ages ago I was going to write about unschooling a tween. And I already wrote a bit. I know some people don’t like the term ‘tween’ because they see it as commercialized and from a marketing background. I have no strong feelings for or against the word, myself, but I’ve yet to find another term that does actually distinguish 9-12 year olds from their younger and older counterparts. So, from that perspective, I’ll be using it. Because this age group is different – they aren’t little kids, they are developing teen interests, but there are still things they are learning to understand, and things they can’t do. They are learning to be more independent than they were a year or two ago, but need our help more than a teen. Their hormones are already playing havoc. They might be putting on a bit of weight before a massive growth spurt, or they might already have sprouted and be skinny beans! You can’t protect them from growing up – they are already doing it!

So. Here are some thoughts based on our (limited, as yet) experiences!

Recently, I searched high and low for writing and talks on cocooning. I didn’t find a great deal. I bought Kelly Lovejoy’s awesome talk from LiG, which does talk about cocooning quite a bit, and is where I stole part of my title from! I know Kelly used ‘The Dark Ages’ as tongue in cheek in her talk title, but even with cocooning happening here, there is also a lot of light in the dark!

Kai has been cocooning somewhat. I don’t have a metric to compare it to really. But he’s way more of a homebody than he’s ever been, right now. He just enjoys being home. I can hear him right now, giggling away at some YouTube or another. He’s busy, in there. He’s not still…not at all. He enjoys his own company. He equally enjoys skyping with his friends, which he does every day pretty much. But it’s all in his bedroom. He doesn’t come out often. We still go to park day, visit friends, and the occasional activity, but for the most part, he’s happy at home. And i’m happy he likes our little home so much that he wants to spend most of his time here.

From what I read about cocooning, it could continue in some form for a good few years until he emerges out the other side, all butterfly-like! But that’s okay, I think we will be okay…

But sometimes I feel like i’m not doing ‘enough’, or anything – really! So….on to those feelings…

Feeling redundant as a parent!
Before, Kai needed my help ALL the time. Read this. Type that. Look this up. I’m hungry. Let’s go out. Let’s watch a movie.

Those days are gone, my friend! He can read, type, research, and doesn’t much want to go out or watch a movie with us anymore! For a while there, I sat around twiddling my thumbs, and occasionally trying to emotionally blackmail him to come watch a movie with me or go out!

But I think (hope!) I’m moving on from those feelings. I’m finding other ways to connect and share things with him. Different, but not ‘worse’. I take him food, still, multiple times a day. Usually before he asks. I make him chocolate milkshakes. When I take things in, I’ll touch his head, or ask him what he’s doing/watching/playing.  I share interesting articles with him on Facebook, that I think he’ll like – usually on dinosaurs or wolves (then remind him to go check it, because he’s not really as in to social media as some of his friends are at the moment!).

And I started a new job. It takes me away from home for 2 – 4 nights a month, doing scientific field work. It’s something we all talked about before I applied, and it’s temporary….But Kai is fine with it. And fine with me being away for a few nights occasionally. Because he’s growing up and moving toward more independence…that’s what he’s supposed to do. And honestly, I enjoyed my first trip a lot – it’s nice to be doing something out of the house and that means something to me – and it means something to him too (I’m surveying areas for the critically endangered Leadbeater’s possum).

Sex: You won’t have ‘The Talk’, but you’ll probably have multiple talks over a long period of time!

We’ve been talking about sex since Kai was 7, and first asked me ‘What is sex?’ driving home from visiting friends where they had been playing ‘The SIMS’! I’m not sure I handled that conversation particularly well – probably too much biological detail and too much talking – eventually he said ‘Okay, that’s enough information! Stop!’ So I did!

Since then, topics arise and are discussed and we move on. Information is accrued in small nuggets over a long period of time. Some of the topics we’ve covered already include puberty changes, rape and consensual sex, same sex relationships (though this was covered years ago)…

And sometimes, I’ve felt awkward! For sure! And sometimes I’ve wanted to laugh! But didn’t! A couple of weeks ago Kai came in and very seriously said ‘Mom, can I ask you something?’ – my stock standard response ‘Yes, always.’ So, he said ‘Is beaver another word for vagina?’ Oh…it was hard work to keep a straight face….but I did, and nonchalantly replied ‘Yes. It’s kind of a slang word for it, used more in America than here. Why? Where did you read that?’ – answer, of course, YouTube! Never read the comments!!

Yesterday we had another eye-opening car conversation – where all the best convo’s happen! Kai : ‘So. This guy is doing a Genghis Khan challenge in SIMS. You might not know this Mom, but Genghis Khan had sex with a lot of women.’ That led to a long conversation on history, the genetic legacy of Genghis Khan, the fact he was almost definitely a rapist, safe sex, pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, Heny VIII and syphilis! All in a 45 minute drive!


Unschooling – Where British and Mongolian history meets sex ed in the car!

Facilitating their interests – what’s different, what’s not

My role as facilitator has definitely changed over the past year or two, for many of the reasons I’ve already mentioned….My old role was tied up with helping a lot – helping Kai read things, find things, type things. He doesn’t need my help so much these days – so that part of my role is much reduced….he still does ask me to find things occasionally on Google, and I still do Minecraft downloads and Mods, because that is fraught with virus and adware worries and he rather me do it.

But just because i’m doing less helping, doesn’t really mean less facilitating. It looks different though. As I said, I share articles and other stuff with him online. We skype message each other. I’m more of a finder, than a helper now. If the museum has a great exhibit on something he’s interested in, i’ll tell him, and we’ll usually go. Last week that was Jurassic World at Melbourne Museum.


Kai and the raptors!

I book the tickets for Cons like Comic Con, Supanova and PAX. I sew the cosplay costumes. If I see new games out that i think he’d like, I tell him (though he’s usually heard of them way before me!). I buy him gifts that support his loves for pop culture, for wolves, for comics, for movies, for dinosaurs!


Most recent Cosplay – Kiba – to raise money for the Starlight Foundation

Finally, if you treat your tween with respect, kindness and trust they will return that favour to you and their friends in droves….

Though Kai is in a ‘cocoon’ stage, somewhat, he’s not surly or moody with it. It’s a choice, and he’s not doing it to ‘get away’ from us, he’s doing it, maybe, to get closer to himself?  A period of introspection as he approaches teenhood and then adulthood? He’s a still a fun and kind person to be around – even more so as he gets older, his sense of humour more sophisticated, and his ability to navigate social situations matures.

Yesterday, he told me something that was super cool. He has a friend he skypes with (who he also knows IRL) who has a tendency to take things personally. So a seemingly innocent comment can easily be taken the wrong way. He was telling me this yesterday, and said he is careful to try and not saying anything that will upset them. I asked how he does that. He said ‘It’s like choosing how you’ll say something in ‘SIMS’ – using moods and emotions. I have to make sure it’s happy and inspired, not anything negative.’ I thought that was pretty awesome that he is taking time to try and keep his friends happy, even though he realizes if they overreact, it isn’t always his fault.

So, I’ve written enough. Too much. We are going out to the Sanctuary now! If anyone still reads this blog, and has more questions on teens – leave a comment! :)


No. It’s not another post about learning to tell time. Kai’s got that down pat now!

Instead, it’s about changing activities by the clock. Many would-be unschoolers, and even homeschoolers, to a degree, cite school bells as one of their main reasons to abandon the school system. Anyone who has been to school, whether you generally liked it or not, can remember the frustration of just getting into the groove of something – for me that would have pretty much only been art lesson – and the bell ringing and you have to go off and start something completely unrelated, that you might hate (that would have been math…maybe geography – but mostly I just hated that teacher!).

There’s really not much that’s more frustrating that being forced to stop doing something you are really getting into. You found your groove…bang! Sorry. You need to stop that now!

Who hasn’t stayed up way too late reading ‘just another chapter’ of a great book? (guilty!) Or stayed up way too late binge-watching just another episode of their favourite show? (guilty!) Some people get into a similar groove with knitting (guilty – On rare occasion!). With drawing or painting. Any passion where you can dive in and time becomes irrelevant. For some activities, the more you focus and become engrossed, the more inspired you become. You might do your best work after hours of writing, or drawing, or painting, because you are fully focussed, you found your ‘flow’, or mojo, as we like to call it!

Flow is a real thing, which makes Mojo a real thing – which I like a lot! Flow, in terms of psychology, is also known as ‘the zone’ and is the mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. Flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does (adapted from here).

According to Mihály Csíkszentmihályi , the Hungarian psychologist,  flow is a ‘single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate experience in harnessing the emotions in the service of performance and learning.’

So. It frustrates me when adults think it’s okay to still stop kids doing a beloved activity based on the clock. Mostly, this seems to be video gaming. Sometimes TV and other oh so scary modern technology. When my Mum was a kid, it was reading. My Nan would tell her to put her book down and go outside. Parents probably still do this….but overwhelmingly I find it relating to ‘screentime’ (agggh! That word!!) specifically.

Parents who have shown dissatisfaction with the school system of bells are essentially implementing the same system in their own home if they are arbitrarily telling their kids to stop gaming after an hour. Or whatever time allowance THEY decided upon.

Imagine if your partner told you put your book down after one hour? ‘Okay, that’s your allowed book reading time today. Stop now, or there will be no more book reading for you for the rest of the week.’ Imagine you were in the middle of a chapter? Would you be annoyed? Might you shout and fight this arbitrary and unfair ‘rule’ of limited time imposed by someone who is supposed to be your partner? Maybe your partner would deduce that reading books made you angry, after that, and limit them even more? Well, that’s how your kids feel – and so it’s not video games making then ‘aggressive and angry’ and all the other things parents say – it’s the unfair rule of limited time.

Aside from the false argument that ‘screentime’ causes kids to be aggressive and angry (when it’s actually you interrupting their flow that is likely causing that reaction), many parents also argue that ‘screentime’ makes their kids ‘hyperactive’.

Previously, in discussions, maybe even here on this blog, I’ve said that video games and TV don’t have magical powers to change peoples behaviour. I’m going to revise that statement.

In terms of psychology, flow, and what we just learnt about getting ‘in the zone’ – I think video games, TV, books, knitting, drawing…anything you can essentially ‘get lost’ in, will change what’s going on in your brain.

I know after finishing a great book, I’m sometimes kept awake at night thinking about characters and the story. Same with TV shows (for me, that includes Game of Thrones, Walking Dead, and various others….all have had me kept awake thinking, thinking….!). I spend a lot of time looking fan theories, and thinking about plot lines – I love it!

When I used to do more freelance and creative writing, I’d get ideas and couldn’t sleep until I’d written them down and ‘got them out’. Even when I was doing my PhD, I’d find flow in doing data analysis (true story!) and then have more and more ideas of experiments I could do.

So. I’d argue that yes – getting immersed in anything can make your brain hyperactive. Flow is characterised by profound changes in brain function – when you are experiencing flow, your brain is literally lit up. But this isn’t a bad thing! This is a good thing!

A recent study in Australia, 40 research subjects were presented with an exceptionally tricky brain teaser—the kind that requires a deep creative insight to solve. No one solved it. But when flow was induced artificially (using transcranial magnetic stimulation), 23 subjects got the answer right and in record time.

By setting arbitrary time limits on your child’s access to superb learning resources like video games and TV (and books, and knitting and drawing…but I somehow doubt you are doing that :p ), you are stopping them reaching their flow state. So. Basically stunting their learning. Not allowing them to reach their full learning potential. And keeping them set within the arbitrary bell ringing school-world.  One of the key tenets of getting the most learning potential from reaching the flow state is:

  • Make sure that you’ve set aside sufficient time. It takes at least fifteen (uninterrupted!) minutes to start to get into the flow state, and longer until you’re fully immersed. Once you enter the flow state you want to make sure that you make the most of it, instead of having to stop prematurely because you have to go do something else (or something arbitrary because your parent says it’s time to stop).

If you want to truly move away from the limits of the school bell, and let your child learn as deeply and passionately as reaching a flow state, then all their passions need to be supported and facilitated – and that includes video gaming, TV and other ‘screentime’ – move away from the fear and into the flow!

More about learning and video games here

Here is a talk about flow state by Prof. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, called ‘Flow: The Secret to Happiness’

This is a really cool article about flow states in gaming, and game development.

So, in continuation of my last post – even though I didn’t plan it that way….Kai learnt to tell the time on an analog clock today.

And yes. I mean today. From not knowing anything about it when he woke this morning. To telling the time to the minute by the time he goes to bed!

I don’t know about you, but school made telling the time some kind of BIG deal! It seemed impossible to grasp. An abstract concept. Is it 12.30 or half past twelve? If you understand half-hours, lets move on to quarter-hours. They made you think you had to learn it all sequentially. That it takes years to master. And it did take years. Because they tried to get you to understand it before your brain was ready…years before your brain was ready.

So. My story, before I get sidetracked! Well. Kai’s story, really!

As I’ve said, he has suddenly become more number literate, and had been reading the digital clock on his computer, working out how long till x’oclock, etc.

But he’s never read an analog clock. We used to have one, but now we don’t.

It’s his 10th birthday next week, and we met friends at an indoor play area today and they gave him his gift, which he opened.

Well! Slight diversion to show said AWESOME gift! A Harry Potter wolf patronus locket/pocket watch! That glows in the dark!!

So. My Harry Potter-, Pop Culture-, Wolf-loving child was over the moon with his gift!!

After we all marveled at it for a while, he said ‘I’ll have to learn to read the time using this now.’ And I said ‘Sure. Just put that clock next to your computer and then you will figure it out.’

He asked a few questions, which I answered. Then went to play. In the car later on the way to Nana’s, he said ‘I don’t get how this works.’ I tried to explain, then heard myself saying ‘This is 10-past, that is 10-to, but that could also be 3.50, not just 10 to 4….’ and it sounded terrible to me! And it sounded terrible to him….he told me to stop, that it was confusing him more!

So. We got to Nana’s, and he disappeared into the spare room to watch TV….or so I thought (I’m pretty sure he spent most of it figuring out the clock).

We headed home in the car, and he got his watch out again. He said ‘I think I have it. Each one of these is 5 minutes (it was), and each little mark is 1 minute (it was)’…Then he said ‘I’m going to figure out the time without looking at the car clock (digital)’.

And he counted in 5’s, then 1’s, to 5.34pm. Exactly. Quickly. In less than an hour he’d pretty much gone from having no idea to mastering telling the time to the minute! WHaaaattt!!!

He did it a couple more time on the way home. He got it right. I said – ‘You know what, you also used your 5 x tables.’ He asked how….I told him you counted 5, 10, 15 as you went around the clock – that’s counting in 5’s…..he said ‘Oh! So THAT’S what times tables are! I always wondered when Will and Tommy talked about them’ (his cousins).

So yeah. I know I shouldn’t still be surprised by these things…but I am. More surprised than I was with him learning to read….because this was QUICK! So quick! And it seemed so hard at school….

I’ve been thinking, reading and listening to a lot of things about maths lately….and maybe as a consequence, or maybe it’s a chicken-egg thing, I’ve been seeing a lot of maths in Kai’s life, too.

But i’ll get to that later.

Firstly, I was thinking about maths ‘readiness’. You see SO MUCH about reading readiness, and even the schools are finally starting to realise that kids all learn to read differently, and at different ages, but you don’t see a lot about maths readiness.

I was thinking about it because, suddenly, number ‘literacy’ seems to have twigged for Kai. At nearly 10. Calculations that would have stumped him only a few months ago, he can do quickly in his head. Complex addition, subtraction, money…he’s even figuring out telling the time, down to how many minutes to x’oclock, etc.

In lots of ways, it mirrors how he learnt to read. But the numbers thing has come later…about 18 months later, to be exact.

Like reading, it wasn’t the linear progression that schools make-believe happens…it was sudden, and it was all areas of understanding. He went from not being able to do simple calculations, to doing complex one’s in a matter of months. All of which suggests, to me, that number literacy is like letter/word literacy – you can’t do it until your brain is ready – and when it is, it happens naturally and painlessly.

For someone who found school maths absolutely impossible to comprehend, this comes as something of a kick in the butt! All those years spent struggling when actually it’s likely my brain just wasn’t number literate until later than many kids. Which also explains why, when I went back to Uni at 25, maths was easy and fun!

In the meantime though, after I left school at 16 (I failed my maths GCSE, for the record!), I was using maths ‘in the wild’…I really love this term, and I’ve heard and read it a lot lately! I think Joyce maybe coined it? I saw her writing at this awesome page on math where she mentions it…But Pam Sorooshian also said it in a recent podcast I listened to. Anyway, whoever it was who first used it, it wasn’t me. But I’m going to use it now, all the time!

Back to my meanderings as an older teenager and in my early twenties. At 16 I was working in a typing pool in an office, typing share certificates (yes. I’m *that* old!). We had to tally everything up at the end of a round of certificates. My boss said I had a ‘head for numbers’. This was news to me…and all my maths teachers!

After that, I worked at the RSPCA. I looked after dogs that had been mistreated, often starved. As part of court cases against owners, I logged how much weight they gained each week. I weighed them, subtracted my weight from theirs (I picked them up to stand on the scales!) and converted pounds to kilo’s. If that’s not wild maths, I don’t know what is!

Then, I travelled around the world for 6 years. I negotiated time tables for buses, trains and planes. I converted money from one currency to another (back then, in Europe, that was a LOT of conversion!). I managed my finances, bought food, paid for rooms. I worked in bars adding drink totals in my head. Wild. Maths.

And when I went back to college to do the course that allowed me to go to Uni as a mature age student, at 25 – I whizzed through the basic maths. And was soon enjoying (yes, you read that right!) algebra and differential equations! In first year Uni I also loved statistics! The wild maths I’d been doing, and the fact that my brain was now ready to be number literate, made all the difference in the world!

So. On to Kai and unschooling and how he’s learning maths in the wild. I’ve seen a bunch of graphics showing how kids learn maths through unschooling, like the one’s Sue Patterson has at Unschooling Mom2Mom (scroll down for it, but the whole page has great resources, too!).

But I thought i’d try something different – a side-by-side comparison. ‘School’ (or ‘caged’?!) maths beside ‘Wild’ maths. I picked school maths examples from Grade 4, as that’s what grade he’d be in (I know this because his cousin is the same age and goes to school :p ).

The examples are all from Kai’s actual life – he plays a lot of video games, so a lot of our examples will come from gaming, but i’ll try and think of some others too (in case you don’t have a gamer….erm…I’m sure there must be kids that don’t like gaming?! Right!? Yeah, nah…doubt it!).So. Let’s begin with addition and subtraction – caged vs wild.

Addition and Subtraction


Now, I have taken steps to make sure to also include school maths that is, in essence, trying to masquerade as wild maths – like the Minecraft worksheet in this example.  But guess what – actual Minecraft is addition and subtraction too, for real reasons! And dice/money games like monopoly, Pokemon game cards (or any cards with stats and powers on them), stat pages for games like ARK: Survival Evolved…and even a bit of actual schooly looking maths in Naruto!

Multiplication and Division

Yep. I have an App in the school side. It’s an app we used to have (eek!!), even ‘fun’ looking apps aren’t wild maths though. And they aren’t really fun, either! So – wild math – yep, we divide up chocolate blocks ALL the time! In order to build symmetrical buildings (well, any building or structure, really!) in Minecraft you need to use multiplication and division. We love playing Yahtzee and that uses multiplication all the time…In order to build enclosures, feed animals, and balance the books, Zoo Tycoon uses heaps of multiplication and division.

Measuring and Weighing 


Like really – why would you measure a jug on a worksheet when you need milk to make waffles in your real actual life!? The Cave Bear example is (as are all of these) real examples from Kai’s actual real life lately. He watched a few YouTube doco’s on Cave Bears, and the comparison size between a cave bear and a grizzly (including that it’s skull is 2 x bigger – also multiplication!). We use the geocaching app, which tells you distance to the cache, weighing and measuring in the kitchen, measuring our caterpillar to see how it fast it grew, and measuring a koala skull we found to try and determine if it was male or female (we think male, for the record!).

What about maths that seems more complex? More advanced? Like those pesky percentages that plagued me as a school girl (that’s a neat alliteration…just as an aside!). Turns out fractions and percentages are WAY more fun on the wild side! Pizza anyone!?

Fractions and Percentages


I included the ‘school’ example on the bottom left, as I thought it related to Zoo Tycoon on the right. The exercise on the left is just that – meaningless work making a grid into different habitat types. In Zoo Tycoon, you do that (choose the percent types of cover/vegetation) but it costs different amounts of money, and helps keep your animals alive! Way more interesting!

Most video game stats charts are full of percentages, fractions and decimals – like the one’s in ARK. And seriously- what kid hasn’t watched their game load or checked the percentage uploaded on an app, on Steam…almost everywhere!  Oh, and the cute dragon in the top, it makes you 1,963 coins/1 hour!

What about geometry, map reading and coordinates? Well…we *actually* do a lot of that wild math in the wild….geocaching and hiking!

Mapping, grids and coordinates


Nearly every video game Kai plays has a map. That one at the top left on the ‘wild’ side is from ARK, but Zoo Tycoon, Wizard 101, Dragon game apps, every game I can think of, has a map! In Minecraft, you can install a Mod called REI’s Minimap that lets you plot home coordinates…Battleships is all coordinates (and strategy!), Geocaching is coordinates and map reading. And let’s not forget Google Maps! Kai is my primary map reader in the car these days!

Moving right along….Telling the time, estimating time, converting time. Wild time isn’t like school time – for one thing, it doesn’t go excruciatingly slow (haha!) – and analog clocks are likely to be the very last way an unschooled kids learns to tell time.

Telling Time


Telling time is something I stressed about somewhat, since Kai only just recently learnt to tell the time at all. But since it *just* happened, the how’s are something fresh in my mind. Mostly the how was YouTube! Watching YouTube videos – if we are going out, i’d say ‘How much of your video is left?’ – YouTube handily lets you know that in a fraction/proportion format at the bottom of the player. Many games make you wait until your creature matures, or egg hatches, and it gives you a count-down..We skype with friends all over the world, but mostly Canada, so Kai has a good idea about differences in times across the world (also the UK, for my family). You can change the time in some games, like Minecraft, which can help you do stuff….and finally…the computer has a clock on it ALL the time!

And lastly – I made a kind of general category for *other* mathematical concepts and mathematical thinking…including algebra, patterns, probability and chance, and more…

Probability, Patterns, Algebra etc…


Jigsaws, chance games like Uno and Backgammon, card games, geometry/pattern games like Blokus, strategy games like Chess….all awesome fun things that, as a side effect, build mathematical thinking and algebraic reasoning skills…In the middle, crossing the line, I’ve put the App Dragon Box. We like it here, I like it more than Kai, though. But we’ve deschooled for a looong time. It might be too schooly for newbies who haven’t deschooled….which is why I have it straddling the two sides… it’s a fun game, if you can see it only as a fun game ;)

So. That’s it. Hopefully the graphics illustrate what I wanted them to – that schooly math is  dull, uni-dimensional, not related to real life and arbitrary.  Wild math is ,well, Wild! It’s inside, outside, dice, computer games, cards, jigsaws and more….it relates to your real life, and helps you get stuff you want  – like cookies, dragons, pizza, geocaches and road trips!