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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
What are your thoughts on unschooling & homeschool co-ops? Our local homeschool group is thinking of becoming more of a co-op. This difference seems to me to mean a bit more structure and planning then was going on last year (which was a bit more play it by ear and more social game palying for the older kids and crafts for the younger kids). I can see having a exposure to these various "classes" and guests could be interesting and beneifical yet I also wonder if now (at the inception of this co-op) is the most important time to help steer our group in an unschooling friendly way. So what would that be to you?
I've suggested everyone talk with their kids about what they want out of having a co-op and to consider an interest of their child to share with the group or go on a related field trip.
I leave whether we go up to the kids and they choose to go everytime last year but it was more for the social aspect then wanting to partake in the crafts so I also can see a potential for them to not want to go if things get too structured and full of activities they aren't interested in. In a way I feel like the kids should be planning this and having the option just to socialize and play.
 

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How big is your group? What's the age range like, and how do your kids fit into things age-wise and interest-wise? Are the others mostly more structured homeschoolers, or is there a healthy balance of unschoolers in the mix?

We've never been part of a formal co-op with registration forms and fees, but for a couple of years we were part of an informal very small co-op (two or three families, about 10 kids).

Our co-op was made up of all unschoolers and was very much child-led. One year we had biweekly half-days that fit with the theme of "hands-on science." We asked the kids what they wanted to explore. Almost any idea was enough to build a half-day around ... gravity, astronomy, plants & seeds, molecular structure and chemical bonding, snow science, engineering, flight, light and colour, playground physics, you name it. The activities and materials were organized by the parents based on the kids' requests and interests, and we took turns with that. The next year we did world cultural geography, organized primarily around ethnic cooking and a collaboratively cooked meal. Again, the choice of country or culture was the kids' job. (OMG, Australian recipes were quite a stretch especially since a lot of us were vegetarians!) Each family would bring a recipe or two with the necessary ingredients, and a craft or song or game idea inspired by that country. We always ended with an hour or two of free play.

Right now I'm excited to see what is developing in the town that is our second home, something called Open Learning Days. It's not a model I'd describe as a typical co-op, but it's pretty cool and very unschooling-friendly. What evolved over the course of a few weeks this spring was beginning to work very well, and while it's on hiatus now until liability issues are addressed, we expect it'll resume next fall. The sessions were instigated by two unschooling parents who are also alternative-school teachers, who happen to have access to part of a school building half a day each week. I'm guessing that the attending families are divided about 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 between unschoolers, eclectic homeschoolers and semi-unschoolers.

Arrival time is flexible between noon and 1 pm, and that time is for free play and socializing. Then there's a short meeting where we go over what activities are available and where they will be happening. Usually there are four activities going on simultaneously and about 25 people attending. There's always a basic art area with paints and crayons or similar, and that's the default activity for kids who aren't interested in any of the more formal or goal-oriented offerings. Other activities might be offered by parents, kids or mentors. In another space a kid might be teaching yo-yo tricks, and down the hall a mom might be leading a yoga class, and a teenaged girl and her mom might be leading a drumming circle on the lawn outside. Sometimes there's an outside mentor or instructor who has come in to teach something. So far this has always been a volunteer, either a homeschool parent or friend, or someone who also offers classes/lessons elsewhere and views their session as an outreach/PR session. That means we haven't had to fuss with money issues. We had a homeschool lawyer-dad do a theatrical class on law & government, a woman came in to lead a Kindermusik session for the under-7's, and a guy who runs a wildcrafting summer camp taught an archery session. (Only one "outside visitor" per week, so everything else is grass-roots, facilitated by participants.) After 45 minutes there's a 10-minute break for snack, and then people can move to a different activity if they like, or return to the same. At the end of the day there's a circle time when we talk about who will be coming next week, what options they (or others) could offer, and whether there are enough people interested in whatever is being suggested to likely make it fly. And then more free-play time, for another 45 minutes.

There are three things about Open Learning Days that work really well. Free time is always part of the day. There's always an open-ended quiet-ish art activity available. And the kids are involved in generating, discussing and implementing various activity ideas.

My unschooled kids enjoy doing more formal "instructed" classes with other kids when the kids are similarly interested and motivated. That doesn't tend to happen when something is thrown out as general-interest class designed to appeal to any homeschooler as an introductory experience. My kids hated "homeschool gymnastics" because there was lots of poor behaviour and lack of interest amongst the other kids. They loved regular gymnastics (same gym, same coaches, but classemates self-selected for genuine interest).

When the children's level of interest, age and ability are likely to vary hugely, which is probably going to be the case when you get a bunch of random homeschooling parents to agree to bring their kids to something, I think it's best to always have an open-ended activity available and schedule in some free-play time. Because really the value in the learning experiences there is likely to be largely in the "exposure" and social realms.

Miranda
 

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Discussion Starter · #3 ·
We also have a small informal group. I'd say there are three families who show up pretty much every time with about 10 kids (ages 14 down to my youngest who is 1- although my 1 &3 yr olds pretty much just play with the toys there and look at books, the majority of the kids are 6-9 (my older two are 6 &8), there is another family or two who come once in a while and we had a handful of one timers of various ages. I know one family is Waldorf and I believe all the others are eclectic- but structured and I'm the only unschooler.
Your days sound great and fun! I feel like our group is a bit small and that most of the time the kids really just want to run around and play. They are really great together and that is the only time everyone is together. Once the activity comes out the oldest ones head off to play games like Magic and the 6-9 crowd does the activity but I usually get the feeling it's because those parents told them to. My 8 yr old prefers to hang out with the older kids and look at books, my 6 yr old LOVEs craft projects so he does the activity.
I'd love to involve the kids in planning what we do but I get the feeling that the other families mostly aren't going to even consider asking the kids but are looking to have the group time count as a class they don't have to plan. TBH we go for more of the social aspect and I'm a bit leary of the direction the conversation is going.
 

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about 10 kids (ages 14 down to my youngest who is 1
That's just about exactly what we had for our Science and Food co-ops. I would say that with that number and spread, the most structured thing that will work would be some collaborative projects or open-ended/optional activities with alternative non-disruptive play for those who aren't interested. There is no way you will find more than a very small handful of things that will engage everyone, and the more directed and teacherly they are the narrower the appeal will be.

Here is a recounting of one of our more successful Science Co-op days. A lot of different things got done, but that was mostly by the older half of the kids, and the younger kids just played, and the focus of this session allowed the free-form play to proceed in non-disruptive ways and without requiring overwhelming parental attention:
http://nurturedbylove.ca/blog/?p=1315

And here is a description how one of our Kitchen Club (cultural geography through food co-op) days went:
http://nurturedbylove.ca/blog/?p=972

If you have access to a church kitchen or even just a large-ish home kitchen connecting to an open dining area that can be used to, I really think that a food-focused co-op hits a sweet spot with a group of this size. First, it's easy to split the planning and prep work: each family brings one recipe and the ingredients for it (emailing to prevent duplication). Second, there is work for everyone: the 3-year-old can cut the tofu, or crank the ice cream maker, or dish out the condiments, while the 14-year-old can be in charge of an entire baked recipe. Thirdly, enjoying the meal together is a great way to pull everyone together for mutual enjoyment of each others' company towards the end of the session. Regardless of the chaos and complications that might precede it on any given day, the meal together leaves everyone with a literal and figurative good taste in their mouths.

Two other co-operative learning experiences that appealed to the same or similar groups of kids were creating a community garden (with common plots and individual plots, and all the landscaping and composting and fencing work that went along with that) and a series of family hikes / nature walks. The nature walks brought in learning about weather, navigation, local history, bird and animal signs and identification, wildcrafting, edible plants and such.

Miranda
 
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