Technology and Unschooling

Technology, and giving our children unlimited access to it, plays a big role in their learning.  It has provided wonderful opportunities for our family to connect and strengthen our relationships.

Before I share some of our favorite resources, I wanted to share a bit about the common “objections” to technology & the word “screen time”.

You’ll often see articles in the media and recommendations from professional groups encouraging parents to severely limit the amount of time children spend in front of “screens”.  It’s been stated that television & gaming contribute to obesity & a sedentary life, foster violence, and are addictive.  The biggest issue with these studies is that they are done on public school students.  Each day a student spends up to an hour sitting on the bus, another 7 hours sitting in class, another hour sitting on the bus home, another 30 minutes to 4 hours (depending on the grade) sitting doing homework ~ that’s over 40 hours a week.  You have a person already living a sedentary lifestyle.  Any additional activity spent sitting is only exacerbating the situation ~ by the way, this would also include interests like reading, knitting, playing an instrument, etc.  As homeschoolers, this does not have to apply to you.

In regards to fostering violence ~ the media latched on to a perceived correlation between violent acts (again, schooled students) and the commonality that perpetrators played violent video games.  However, when actual data was reviewed, researchers at Villanova University and Rutgers University concluded:

“Annual trends in video game sales for the past 33 years were unrelated to violent crime both concurrently and up to four years later. Unexpectedly, monthly sales of video games were related to concurrent decreases in aggravated assaults and were unrelated to homicides. Searches for violent video game walkthroughs and guides were also related to decreases in aggravated assaults and homicides two months later. Finally, homicides tended to decrease in the months following the release of popular M-rated violent video games.”

“Finding that a young man who committed a violent crime also played a popular video game, such as Call of Duty, Halo, or Grand Theft Auto, is as pointless as pointing out that the criminal also wore socks.”

Another common objection to television and gaming is that they are addictive.  Clinically speaking, addiction is defined as

a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.

Do I believe that someone can become addicted to video games or television?  Absolutely.  Just as someone can become addicted to food, exercise, or sex ~ all of which also play a meaningful part in our lives.  For nearly 40 years, since the Rat Park studies of the late 70’s, researchers and medical professionals have repeatedly found that addictions often disappeared when the environment of the addicted was positively changed.  The drugs, alcohol, and video games are a means to producing a euphoric effect combating a perceived miserable situation.  Remember how I detailed earlier that more than 40 hours a week of a schooled student’s life is dictated by someone else?  Who wouldn’t want to escape?  The solution to or prevention of addiction is not to forbid or limit your child from video games & television (or food, or exercise), it’s to facilitate an environment and foster a relationship they don’t feel the need to try to escape from.

I would also like to address the phrase “Screen time” because it is loaded with a lot of assumption and negative connotation.  Our family doesn’t use it in our everyday vernacular, but I’ve referred to it here, because of its prevalence.  When our children are reading, coloring, or writing ~ we don’t refer to it as “paper time”.  We don’t negatively lump any other multitude of activities into one category based on commonality.  It’s dismissive to their interest and keeps you, as parents, from gaining a better understanding of the specific activity and your child.

OK, Let’s get started with some resources our family enjoys.

Books!  Yes, books and technology go together.  Many public libraries have teamed up with Overdrive to bring you books in digital or audio format and streaming video that you can borrow for free.  Since they are “loaned” digitally ~ they are automatically returned at the end of the lending period and there are never any fees.  To get started, you’ll need a library card and a device to read your books on: computer, tablet, e-reader, or smartphone.   Download the Overdrive app for free.  Some books may only be available in Kindle format.  Amazon also provides a free app that you can download to your device.

If you have a child who is having difficulty learning to read (for whatever reason) or has a hard time retaining read information, consider checking out audio books to listen to while reading the words.  I have several friends who have children with dyslexia who found this to be incredibly beneficial to their children.

Another great resource is Khan Academy.  While this can be used as a more traditional “schooling” approach with assignments and tracking ~ our family has chosen to use it as a reference source.  A parent account and linked student accounts can be created and videos can be watched via an internet browser, an app, or on YouTube.  Families living in states that require more documentation may find the “logging” by Khan Academy useful.

Several websites including Coursera, edX, MIT OpenCourseWare and more offer college courses (both live & pre-recorded) for free online.  Some even offer the ability to earn a certificate.  Taking classes “real time” can give your child an idea of the demands and rigor of college classes without worrying about their “permanent record.”  Taking a previously published course allows students to work through material at their own speed and convenience.

Just because a resource isn’t labeled “educational” doesn’t mean that our children aren’t learning from it.  The people who design video games, program apps, write television shows, and costume characters in movies all bring their own knowledge and experiences to their efforts.  Not to mention the additional research designers/contributors do as the project unfolds.  Themes might include a historical period, literary characters, or geography.  Many games inherently involve math concepts like algebra, geometry, and finances.  While these “bunny trails of learning” may appear to be superficial, they can translate into a deeper study sometime in the future.  A favorite movie like Lord of the Rings may foster an interest in costuming which may translate into sewing and designing.  A TV show like House may parlay into an interest about anatomy or a desire to learn CPR.  A game like Dota 2 that references characters from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” can expand to an interest in Shakespeare. An app like Scribblenauts encourages players to be a little wild in their answers which helps expand their vocabulary.  Even the frustration that a game doesn’t have the functionality or features they desire might become the impetus to learn coding.

Consider buying or borrowing a copy of a film or TV show that includes a “Special Features” section.  One of our most treasured investments in film is a 12-disk Special Extended Edition of The Lord of the Rings.  Each movie is so long it’s broken into 2 DVD’s and plus two DVD’s worth of additional material ~ it includes sections like: what it took to translate a book from the written medium to writing a script that would translate to the screen, storyboards, art work, scouting locations, designing and building Middle Earth, composing & recording the musical score, casting, filming, interviews with the actors, and the numerous obstacles the entire teams had to overcome.

One of our daughter’s favorite movies is How to Train Your Dragon.  She watched the movie and the TV show endlessly.  The main character, Hiccup, is an artist and designer of all types of contraptions.  Our daughter created a sketch book from scratch and began copying his sketches and adding more of her own.  She designed & built dragons from the story ~ including turning our game room couch into a dragon that she could ride with a head, saddle, and tail.  Last Spring, she researched online to find more information about the upcoming sequel.  She also found an online game called School of Dragons ~ which in addition to allowing her to expand on her interest in the theme introduces topics & information on Viking history, farming, scientific method, commerce, and following directions to complete missions.

Scribblenauts Remix was a favorite app for quite a while (and there’s several different apps as well as WiiU & DS games in the genre).  This game is a fun way to encourage spelling and reading.  When we first downloaded it, our son was already fairly comfortable reading all that is presented, using his creativity challenged him to spell new words.  Our daughter was an emerging reader and needed help understanding some of Maxwell’s requests.  Even though Josh & I are happy to spell whatever word is called out to us, she would often sit down with her “Big Book of Words” to look up the spelling of what she’s trying to give Maxwell.  If a player misspells a word, Scribblenauts suggests words they possibly meant ~ allowing players to self-correct.  Additionally, some words have multiple meanings and the game will ask which the player would like to give Maxwell.  For example, if they type “chicken” the game will ask “chicken (bird)” or “chicken (food)”.  Selecting the bird will place a living chicken to roam Maxwell’s world.  Selecting food will place a cooked leg for Maxwell (or other person/animal) to eat.  Probably one of the best features of the game is the flexibility of the “right” answer.  For example: In Word 1, Level 1 ~ Maxwell needs to cut down a tree and grab the star from the top.  In addition to “saw”, you can give Maxwell a drill & he can cut it down, you can give him a bomb to blow it up (don’t stand too close or Maxwell will be blown up too!), you can place a beaver next to the tree that will chew it down, etc.  We  often go back to previous levels to find new and creative ways to complete tasks.  One of our daughter’s favorite thing to provide Maxwell with: “flying socks”.

Another fun, incredibly simple, yet open-ended app is Rory’s Story Cubes.  This is a digital version of a hugely popular dice game. 9 cubes with a picture on each of 6 sides equals 54 pictures and millions of combinations.   Pictures include representations of an eye, beetle, house, star, footprint, apple, scales, bee, keyhole, fountain, bridge…The user “rolls” the cubes either by tapping the roll button or shaking the device.  Then we begin with the ever popular, “Once upon a time…” and we’re off creating fanciful stories.  The cubes can be easily manipulated and rearranged on the screen so that you can formulate your story.  There’s a lock function so that cubes won’t be disturbed as storytelling commences. Tales can be as complicated or simplistic as desired.  Use it to encourage writing skills as well.  Simplistic pictures allow for a wide range of interpretation ~ for example one time our son decided the “arrow” was a spear for hunting, while our daughter used it to determine the direction her character is traveling.  They have been known to each build a story from the same set of blocks just to see what the other comes up with.  Individual or group thinking is encouraged.  The whole family has sat around concocting stories.  Leave the cubes as they land and let each person take a turn adding to the story with the next cube.  For even more ideas, visit the Rory’s Story Cube’s link: Ways to Play.

Beyond simple games on PBS Kids, Minecraft was probably our first significant exploration of the world of online gaming.  While it seems incredibly simplistic in terms of graphics, we have found the tangents to be complex and unlimited.  For those of you who are unfamiliar, it would be easily described a virtual LEGOs.  In creative mode, an endless supply of blocks allows users to create buildings, farms, tools, weapons, and dig mines.  In survival mode they would have to start from scratch to acquire the items.  For example: they would cut down a tree, turn the wood into a shovel or pick-ax and then use that ax to mine in the ground to uncover stone or coal.  They could combine the wood with coal and build a torch to see at night.  And on from there.  If you don’t have any idea of what I’m talking about ~ I highly recommend Minecraft Dad’s tutorials on YouTube.  They are family-friendly and a great overview of the basics of Minecraft.  Like any other open-ended game the possibilities for learning are exponential.  One of the first Minecraft servers our kids played on was a “peaceful” server of other Christian homeschoolers/Unschoolers.  It fostered a respectful atmosphere where each player had a protected plot of land as well as community areas suggested or built by players including a post office, stores, police station, and a public pool.  It was interesting to see the kids come together at one point to decide that their “world” needed a government.  They determined a mayor and other political & government positions, held elections, had term limits, enacted laws, etc.  That’s not to say that “peaceful” is the only way to learn.  There are many public & private servers based on books, movies, cartoons, and other video games with various levels of cooperative or competitive objectives and obstacles.  Minecraft was also our children’s first experience with “chat” functions.  It helped improve their reading & spelling as well as their ability to communicate effectively and succinctly.

Don’t Starve Together

Steam is another popular platform for gaming in our home.  Steam is different from platforms like the Wii or PlayStation in that it is based on the PC or Mac.  It is also free ~ which significantly reduces the upfront financial investment (provided you already own a computer) ~ in contrast to the $350 you’ll need to shell out for an XBox One .  One of the things that I appreciate about Steam is the wide variety of “co-op” multiplayer games.  Our daughter, in particular, doesn’t like playing competitively.  So, games like Battleblock Theater, Don’t Starve Together, and Portal2 allow players to work together to complete tasks.  Not only do the games themselves provide opportunity to problem solve, but working together as a team sharpens our interpersonal and communication skills.  Several obstacles can be overcome in more than one way ~ which encourages players to approach it in numerous ways.  Do they want to save time, save resources, or build a foundation for a future hurdle.

Skills our son has gained from Steam are understanding concepts like investments, bartering, budgeting, and saving.  Steam has a “wishlist” option where players can add games they are interested in purchasing.  They have sales several times a year and notify users when a “wishlist game” goes on sale.  There is also a “marketplace” where users can trade, sell, & buy items that they earn in games or extra content that may have come as a bonus during a purchase.  For example, during the Winter sale, our son purchased a 4-pack of a game at a significant discount.  The game was originally $10 per copy.  He purchased the 4-pack for $10 total ~ for an individual cost of $2.50 per copy.  He kept one for himself and “gifted” copies to two other friends.  He kept the remaining copy in his inventory, until recently when he bartered it to someone in trade for an item worth $8.

YouTube is another wonderful resource.  You can find lessons for playing an instrument, instructions on how to load the bobbin on your sewing machine when you lost the manual, walkthroughs of video games. geographical phenomenon like watching a volcano erupt, building instructions for the garden, and pretty much any other topic you can think of.  To “link” YouTube further to gaming and how you can learn from gaming ~ we’ve enjoyed the GameTheorists and Gaijin Goomba channels, where reviewers further examine historical, cultural, social, as well as controversies within games.  (language/content warning) Many kids like to set up their own Vlogs.  Creating an account, establishing their own channel, talking about safety, and following through with producing and posting content is a wonderful learning experience.

I wanted to mention e-mail.  So many of these online resources rely on e-mail to create a log-in and to track individual preferences or achievements.  I strongly recommend creating an e-mail address for each of your children.  Shared family accounts make it difficult, sometimes impossible to play together.  Since my husband and I already had gmail accounts ~ it was easiest for us to create e-mail for our children through Google.  Because they don’t (by their own choice) check their e-mail, we chose to have their incoming e-mails automatically forwarded to ours so that we didn’t have to constantly log-out of our e-mail to log-in to theirs.

Most online log-ins will ask how old the person is.  Some people use their children’s actual birthdays under the assumption that it will provide protection for them (especially if they’re under 13).  Unfortunately, we’ve found this actually makes things more difficult and removes our ability to make parental judgments as to whether or not something is appropriate/useful for a particular child.  For instance ~ Skype will not let you create an account if the birth date provided is under 13.  Our entire family sharing one account is a logistical nightmare (especially since we’ve been known to Skype each other within the house).  So, we use the parent’s birthdays and they each get their own account.

If you are new to the concepts ~ you may be asking yourself, “How on earth do you know all this?”  It’s easy ~ we play WITH our kids.  We have accounts on Minecraft, Steam, Roblox, Skype, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, School of Dragons, Khan Academy, Coursera, etc.  This has the dual advantage that we have a better understanding of what & how they are learning because we’re witnessing and experiencing it ourselves and it’s an opportunity to strengthen our relationship.   I don’t know everything about every game or every episode.   I certainly don’t play or watch as much as our children, but when I watch or play with them, I learn the “lingo”.   Gaming terms such as DLC, NPC, FPS, or the names of their favorite YouTube channel, or characters in a favorite TV show.   Later, when I can’t play with them, but they’re telling me about a new game, new YouTube upload, or a recent episode while I’m cooking dinner ~ I can fully participate in the conversation because I know what they’re talking about.

I want to ask you not to get hung up on the specific shows, movies, apps, or games that I’ve shared.  These are just examples from our family.  These same learning trails and connection opportunities can be found anywhere and in any medium.  Enjoy discovering them with your children.


If you’re in Texas, I’ll be speaking at the Texas Unschoolers Conference at the end of April.  Would love to meet you there.

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