Overcoming Adversity and Embracing Unschooling

In the face of challenges posed by the global pandemic and a life-threatening illness, Jude embraced an unschooling approach to her child’s education and discovered Learnlife, a learning environment that allowed her daughter to thrive.

Over the last three years, Jude Foulston and her family have embarked on an extraordinary journey.

In the face of challenges posed by the global pandemic and a life-threatening illness, Jude embraced an unschooling approach to her child’s education and discovered Learnlife, a learning environment that allowed her daughter to thrive.

In her own words, Jude shares her experience and how it changed her family’s life.

I think it all started when I was a relatively new mom. My daughter must have been about two, and my colleague, a global futurist and future of work specialist, told me a story about how he had recently given his high school daughter some budget in her monthly allowance to be used for outsourcing her homework.

Now this would have been a good 10 or 11 years ago, so outsourcing wasn’t as much of a thing as it is now…but as a futurist, he understood the gig economy and the value, and skill, in being able to outsource work where appropriate (And as a new mom, I remember being both horrified and amazed at this idea).

The lesson his daughter learnt was that outsourcing her maths homework wasn’t as good an idea as perhaps outsourcing some of her research work! For obvious reasons, when it came to exam time. But it was a skill that I know she still uses to this day (and knowing the career she is in now – it probably stands her in far better stead than the actual maths work she was outsourcing!
Beginning a journey of unlearning

That was quite a long time ago, and at a time when I was still more worried about sticky fingers and scraped knees rather than high school maths.

But that conversation was the beginning of my journey of unlearning so much of what I knew about the education I wanted our kids to have, the skills they needed for their futures, and the way too many of us parents just blindly accept the traditional school system because it’s easier to do so, and because it’s how things have always been done.

Fast forward to 2020…yes, THAT year. Two weeks before we went into hard lockdown, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and our world started to fall apart.

The four of us (with the dog, cat and two rats) stuck at home, dealing with a global pandemic, a life-threatening illness and a million worksheets being sent home for the kids to complete.

I could deal with chemo, I could deal with being stuck at home. What I couldn’t deal with was trying to make my then 7 and 9 year olds do the worksheets and for the 7 year old to sit in front of a computer screen while his poor teacher tried to teach the class.

And so, instead, long story short, we choose to take the year off of their mainstream schooling. Which, to be honest, had never been filled with joy for either of mine who were too often described as ‘day dreamers, disrupters and battles to focus’.
We decided to focus on their mental health instead, and from all the reading I had done from that day my colleague mentioned outsourcing homework, I was convinced that a year off school spent playing outside, building forts, baking, playing Minecraft, learning the ukulele, drawing, and getting cuddles from their bald, smoothie drinking mom would be a million times better for them than any number or quality of worksheets.

And it was.

And then school reopened, and I just didn’t have the energy or heart to send my kids back.

Back to an environment where they had to sit one metre apart from each other at break time, one where they all still had to wear masks (don’t get me wrong, we were all for mask-wearing, but the thought of sending them to school to wear a mask all day didn’t fill me with joy).

And more importantly, one where they would be made to learn the same thing children have been learning for the last century. In the same way, and with the same results…too many kids who ultimately have the joy of learning sucked right out of them.

And so we kept them at home and kind of thought about homeschooling. And as any new homeschooler mom does, we probably downloaded every homeschool curriculum that we could find, spent way too much money on subscriptions, and quickly found that we were kind of just trying to do school at home… and that also didn’t work.

Not for our family.
Embracing unschooling

By this stage, I had read a lot about unschooling, and it was a route that we were trying to embrace. While also trying to find a balance of what worked for us – finding the right amount of structure and the right amount of child-led learning.

I won’t lie. I didn’t find it easy. And to be honest, it felt like our kids needed a little more structure and guidance in their learning than what we, as their parents, were providing. Remember, we were both trying to navigate the pandemic, cancer, and finding our ‘new normal’ at work.
Discovering Learnlife – learning fit for our time

And that’s when I came across Learnlife.

Gosh, I was excited and even started looking up how we could move to Barcelona because it truly looked like just the learning environment we wanted for our kids. A learning environment fit for the time we find ourselves in, rather than when we were preparing children to work in factories!

A place where learning is facilitated. Where the kids can explore numerous different topics, where they can physically get stuck in and make things, break things and everything in between.

Of course, we weren’t ready to leave South Africa, so we chose to enrol the kids on Learnlife’s online learning programme.

I’ll be honest right up front, as much as we loved the idea for our youngest, he still just wasn’t interested in sitting in front of the computer. He was 9 at the time and we were happy for him to just keep learning through play. Which he did.

But for my daughter, we loved it! And more importantly, so did she. As parents, we knew that her learning was being guided by the wonderful Maria. Our daughter loved the small community of learners and being stretched to try new things and dig deeper into her areas of passion.

Suddenly our kitchen was filled with meals from the East as she chose ‘cooking’ as one of her passion projects. I would walk past her room, and she’d be doing a drama play with her peers. She learned stop motion and how to manage her Monday Board and better plan her time.

She proudly reflects on how brave she was when doing her 360s at the end of term – reflecting on her learning and goals she had set.

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