The Unschool of San Antonio sits on two shady acres in northwest San Antonio. Children interact with farm animals, observe wildlife, and tend their own garden patch, creating habits that promote lifelong physical and mental health.
Our space and daily rhythm fosters active and dramatic play, both of which are critical to kids’ physical, emotional, and intellectual development.
Research shows that when children are active they tend to be leaner and healthier. Physical play helps children use up their natural stores of energy and promotes better eating and sleeping habits. It also supports cognitive gain because movement–especially movement outside surrounded by layers of sensory input–builds connection among brain cells: more connection, more computational capacity. Play and learning are indivisible in human development.
In dramatic play, children use their imaginations, weaving together the logical and creative impulses of their brains. To encourage the expansion of childrens' pretend-scapes, our space offers playhouses, sand/water areas, fairy gardens, and more. Research has shown that children given time to develop their imaginations through play tend toward better emotional self-regulation and develop healthier peer relationships. They also generate more ideas to cope with stressful situations later. It’s through play that children build their adaptive potential or the ability to intuit new possibilities, perhaps the most vital “twenty-first century skill.”
We keep class sizes small–tiny, even–in order that we can study each child’s motives, mental models, and passions in order to offer the support they need to develop their interests–whether that means properly teaching them the skills they need to read and compute, a new set of paints, a wider variety of reptiles to observe, a set of new shovels for their garden project, or better sticks for their elaborate forest fort. Then, we follow their wonder through activities, dialogues, reflections, storytelling, art, information, and great books. Our goal is to “spread a feast” of experiences daily by systematically teaching concrete skills (reading and computation), through joy-driven time in nature, the practice of art and movement, and living literature, all of which provide ample multidisciplinary, hands-on applications for emerging knowledge and skills. Further, we provide time and space for children to creatively rework their new experiences and knowledge through play, which results in deep learning.
Because we believe that children want to build mastery and independence in their learning and competencies, rather than allowing an arbitrary body of knowledge to become our focus, we follow and guide children toward and through their passions in order to nurture a love of learning and reinforce life-giving habits of curiosity, creativity, and connection. The best learning happens when there is wonder, joy, and delight afoot and when children are allowed to control their own learning–or, as children usually call it, “doing.”
Inspired by Montessori’s ideas that children should be invited to develop practical life skills by doing “real things” and using “real materials,” we offer children the opportunity to develop their own projects in a process that they control. These projects may be inspired by having their own garden plot, being trained in animal care, or by completing “certifications” that allow them to use basic tools when developmentally appropriate. Any student inspired to take on a project is supported with the materials, knowledge, and skills necessary to accomplish their goals. At The Unschool, we find a way to say “yes” to whichever path learning takes.
As children make their way through each day, engrossed in play or their self-directed “work,” we listen and observe the infinite ways that children express, explore, and connect their thoughts, feelings, and imaginings. As learning becomes visible, we document it through video, photographs, or in text and communicate this to parents on a daily basis, revealing growth in more detail and with more authenticity than grades, tests, and worksheets ever could.
When only 36% of U.S. students in fourth grade are proficient in reading, there is a problem–and it is not the children. Especially alarming is the reality that students who struggle with reading usually struggle with every other subject, even math.
Many adults underestimate the unique challenge that reading and writing English is for young children. There are 44 sounds in English written using 75 phonograms (a picture of a sound, whether one letter such as k, two letters such as oy, three letters such as igh, our four letters such as ough) made up of only 26 alphabetic characters. There are 31 spelling rules that further explain how these spellings are used in English words. In short, it is not as easy as A-B-C. As a result of our devotion to students’ independence as learners, we make sure that each child receives direct reading (and writing, when developmentally appropriate) instruction based on the very best scholarship. This instruction is delivered systematically in short, playful lessons.
When students are taught the Five Essential Skills of Reading through to mastery, they develop deep competencies that will support a lifetime of reading, writing, and independent learning. Students build phonemic awareness, systematic phonics, vocabulary skills, fluency, and comprehension, while constantly engaging with text both for enjoyment and for information. Whether students come to us having had no prior reading instruction or as avid readers, we will support their journey toward independent, joyful reading and writing based on the very best literacy science.
Research out of Harvard nearly twenty years ago made evident that “young children experience their world as an environment of relationships, and these relationships affect virtually all aspects of their development.” The research also revealed that children who had warm, caring relationships with their teachers enjoyed school more, described learning as “fun,” and displayed greater self-confidence in themselves as learners.
At The Unschool, connection is first. We build an authentic connection with each child as we help them to connect with their own truest self, offer them connection to nature, and support their lasting connection with other children.
We intentionally communicate to each child that they are safe and cared for by displaying authentic curiosity about and acceptance for their feelings, thoughts, and experiences. We provide help and comfort when they’re hurting, building trust and modeling empathy. In this way, according to child psychologists, childrens' brains wire to feel connection, to operate under the assurance that they are safe, specifically known, and personally supported. Then, they can freely experience the delight, wonder, and joy that is at the heart of what we offer at The Unschool.
A major part of authentic connection is frequent and clear communication between school and home. The Unschool is an extension of home rather than an “alternative” form of school. We want students to feel that their school family joins their actual family, surrounding them with support. Therefore, the effort that goes into building warmth between teacher and student also goes into nurturing our school community. When safe, we will host regular family gatherings, including holiday parties, monthly Pancake and Play mornings, and special animal visits.