Connecting With Your Unschooler When They Are Awake All Night

For those of us who have a child whose sleep schedule has shifted to being awake all night and asleep through most of the day (this is especially prolific in teens*) – it may feel like we’re disconnected from them. Especially if, before this shift happened, we were able to regularly and consistently connect & hang out with them during the day.

It helps to think of new ways that you can gather and to recognize the “unofficial” ways you may already be naturally connecting. For our son, now 17, he’s spent much of his life as a night person – so we’ve had a lot of time to settle into various routines that allowed for the most connection possible.

I sort of have a morning routine where I come downstairs, let the dogs out, start coffee, unload/reload the dishwasher, make food for dogs, and other random kitchen/downstairs stuff. 17yo would come down and wander around the kitchen and we’d talk about what he’d been doing overnight. He’ll show me YouTube videos (our main TV can be seen from the kitchen). Sometimes he’d set up his laptop to stream to the TV so I could see what he was doing.

It’s a common joke where the first time I see him all day, I say, “What time is it?” And what that means is “where are you in your day?” so he’ll answer with “Just woke up”, “About to go to bed.”, “taking a break for ‘lunch’ and then…”, etc.

Connecting with our 17yo Unschooler while walking our dogs

Lately, the temperatures have dropped, so we’ve been taking the dogs for a walk around the neighborhood. This morning we talked about a new League of Legends character that was released and how he feels about playing her. Some new games that are going to be coming out over the next few weeks, how he’s budgeted for those, and what he’s looking forward to. Spelunky 2 is a newer version of a game we’ve loved to play as a family so we discussed purchasing a bundle if it becomes available.

He asked me about the book I’m currently reading which led to a discussion about forensic accounting and blood diamonds. He was able to connect that with another game he’s played and the discussion moved to Sierra Leone, Northern Africa, child soldiers, and the difference between private military contractors and mercenaries.

Don’t be so quick to ban “tech” during these times. We often use our phones to look up/clarify the things we’re discussing. (This morning, it was to see on a map exactly where Sierra Leone is located in Africa.)

Since the tween/teen years hit – we almost never eat dinner at the dining room table. We’ll watch TV together, take our food to desks and game, etc. All those “studies” about how sitting around the dinner table is necessary are based on: 1. schooled students and 2. parents who don’t know how to connect with their kids. If we eat while we’re all gaming or watching tv together or whatever – then the connection is happening.

-Rachel

Learn more about Rachel on our Contributors page.

Image: Picture is of our two dogs, a brown & white King Charles Spaniel and a grey/silver Schnauzer, walking on leashes ahead of us. (currently our kids don’t want their pics posted to social media, so you get the dogs. 😉)

* For more about how biology impacts when teens sleep, you can read this article (which includes more links): Your Teen Needs More Sleep. However, please keep in mind that this article & the resources are all focused on schooled teens and how to help them work around, adjust, or at worst ignore their nature in effort to function within a paradigm set up against how their body functions. Unschooling makes that unnecessary.

Gaming Addiction

I’ve been participating in discussion groups with Unschoolers for many years.  One of the most popular topics and areas of concern for those new to Radical Unschooling is visual media, specifically gaming.  A common objection to gaming is the potential for addiction.

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?  Absolutely.  Just as someone can become addicted to food, exercise, books, 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.  The solution to or prevention of addiction is not to forbid or limit your child from video games (or food, or exercise, or books), it is to facilitate an environment and foster a relationship they don’t feel the need to try to escape from.

Often parents will then share the “signs of addiction” they note in their children.

She gets cranky and rude!  

He throws a fit when I ask him to stop!

That’s all he does all day!

Let’s take each of these statements and find possible solutions that are respectful to our children’s interest in gaming.

She gets cranky and rude!  Is your child hungry?  Bringing snacks to a gamer can help eliminate blood sugar drops and other hunger symptoms that manifest in a short temper. Monkey Platters are a fun and easy way to keep energy up.  Is your child simply venting their frustration at a particularly difficult level?  Sometimes parents will be upset because their child is grumbling about a lost life or a failed task.  A child verbally processing the game play isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  This could be an opportunity for you to ask questions and better understand what they are doing.  You could offer to help them look up a walk-through on YouTube or take a moment to grab a drink of water before sitting back down and trying again.  Have you interrupted their play?  That leads to…

He throws a fit when I ask him to stop!  If I’m in the middle of reading a book and someone interrupts me – I generally ask them to give me a moment to finish the sentence/section/chapter.  I apply the same principle to our gaming children, “I’d like to talk to you about something, when you find a stopping point can we chat?”.  Or setting up the expectation that we have commitments later in the day.  When our son started getting into games like League of Legends where a match could last thirty minutes or more – I made an effort to let him know if we have appointments so that he doesn’t begin something that he can’t finish.  Some servers penalize users for leaving matches/games/rounds early.  Equate it to sports.  Can you imagine if your child was playing football and you walked onto the field in the middle of the 3rd quarter and said, “We’re leaving.  Now.”  It’s frustrating to not only the individual player, but the “team” as a whole.  Work on identifying what led up to their frustration and brainstorm solutions that are respectful to both of you.

That’s all he does all day!  This can have roots in several places.  If you’ve limited gaming (or Television, or food, or pretty much anything) – you’ve likely created scarcity.  Then, when children are given the opportunity they will “hoard”, trying to get in as much as they can in fear that it will be taken away again.  When the restrictions are removed and our children are secure in the fact that gaming is available at any time – they are emotionally free to explore other things.  Though, for some children, gaming IS their passion.  Which means that it isn’t a matter of scarcity, but of interest and they will continue to spend significant amounts of time on it.     Many folks complain that kids can’t “stay on task” or “focus more than a few minutes” – but when a child spends hours/days/weeks immersed in something, parents will complain about how much time is spent on it.  Even if your child wants to spend “all day” gaming, that’s OK too.  It is as valuable an experience as reading, writing, talking, and researching.  If you really pause and watch, you will see that they are doing all of those things as part of gaming.

-Rachel

Learn more about Rachel on our Contributors page.

What My Kids Are Learning Playing Minecraft

Forward to this article: I wrote this article on my personal blog back in 2012. It has by far been the most popular blog post on my personal site. I thought it might be beneficial to some to share it here. I’ve learned since I wrote this article that everything in this post can be applied to just about every video game, tv show, movie, pop culture and everything in between. It just requires for the parent or guardian to step out of what they’ve been told about visual media and watch what is actually going on with the individual child.~ Michelle Conaway

Who would have ever thought I would have been okay with my kids making a full time job out of playing a video game? I sure never thought I would get there. But I have. My boys spend most of their waking hours on a computer game called Minecraft.

Over the years, after I decided to homeschool, I found myself migrating more towards a philosophy of life called Unschooling. Yes, we pulled out the text books and “educational” websites at the beginning of our homeschooling journey, but my kids got bored with it. I saw them resisting the work I was providing for them and not retaining much of what I was teaching. They would even pretend to be sleeping in the mornings, trying to avoid my “school” work.

For the last couple of years, I’ve let go of doing anything that looked schoolish. Of course, if they want to do worksheets, they are welcome to explore that, but gone are the days that I force them to sit and do anything. Instead, I’ve started asking them what they would like to do and let them do it. What I’ve observed as they play video games, watch cartoons, make their own cartoons on Zimmertwins and read Garfield books is a huge improvement in their reading, math, vocabulary and social skills. In essence, I’ve fully embraced the unschooling philosophy that everyone learns differently and learns best when given the opportunity to pursue things that they enjoy doing. I know I always have. Why would that be different for my kids?

In March we were introduced to the computer game called Minecraft. My boys took to it like nobody’s business! This game is so much fun and the fun and depth with which they play never ends. You can create worlds from scratch, build your own towns, tools, weapons and avatars. You can play on multi servers where you plan communities with other people playing the game. I have observed my kids developing many new skills playing Minecraft and wanted to write about them here.


Problem Solving Skills

When you spawn in Minecraft you are in the middle of nowhere with only trees, caves and animals roaming around. If you are playing in survival mode, you will also see creepers, skeletons, zombies, spiders or enderman that will attack you starting at sundown. You must try to survive by cutting down trees and building yourself some type of primitive shelter to protect yourself from the monsters that come out at night. You also have a hunger bar and if you don’t find food, you will die.

Sounds easy, but trust me it’s not. You must come up with a statagy for surviving that first night and be quick about it lest you die at the hands of the monsters in the dark or a hungry belly. I have seen the kids come up with elaborate plans for surviving that first night. They’ve learned to hunt for food, build shelter, mine coal for torches and make tools from natural resources all within the span of a 10 minute Minecraft “day”.

After that, they have to think quickly about how to continue to survive and build up a world in which they can live more easily. They plan gardens, set up farms with pigs, cows and chickens, build crafting tables and furnaces. They figure out how deep they must mine in a cave to find diamonds, gold and other precious metals. They must learn which weapons or tools work best for hunting, defending themselves against monsters and mining. The stakes get higher the more you survive. If you die you are at risk of losing all of the accumulated materials you have collected in your inventory.

Minecraft provides a continuous arena in which to flex those problem solving muscles and continue down the path to further development in the game.

Research Skills

The boys have learned how to research by playing Minecraft. When they want to learn a new trick or how to build an intricate lighting system for a mansion they have built they head to WikiHow, Youtube and other internet sources. There they find tutorials on how to build elaborate systems for their cities- how to run recessed lighting, how to build irrigation systems, how to plant and maintain gardens and how to build extravagant things like showers for the bathrooms or fireplaces for the living rooms. They have learned to bookmark their favorite tutorial sites, share them with friends, and even explain to others how to do certain things. They are even considering doing their own tutorial videos for youtube.

Communication Skills

The boys have learned to communicate very well playing Minecraft. They have met friends through our Shine with Unschooling group and also through the Unschooling Gamers Yahoo Group and Facebook Group. Through these groups they have learned to set up and use Skype. It’s not uncommon to have several kids from all over the world playing Minecraft on our family server while skyping with each other.

They are learning to work together to gather food for the community, build stores to sell armor, weapons and food, build amusement parks and engineer new cities. They are learning to maneuver through different personality types and problem solve disputes between the players. They are learning to respect the wishes of others and communicate their own wishes and come to agreements on what is going to happen within the world.

If they don’t learn to communicate well on Minecraft, the game doesn’t go as well. Working with others on the Multiplayer servers is key to building and maintaining a world that works for everyone. Kind of like real life, huh?

Typing Skills

With no keyboard or formal typing lessons, the boys have become very fast keyboarders. There is a chat section on Minecraft which has motivated them to learn to type faster and more accurately.

Cameron told me the other day that he is so glad I didn’t force him to do the typing program I tried to get him to do. Through his love of working on the computer he has gotten to be a master typist.

Spelling Skills

Spelling has improved immensely for the boys as they learn to navigate through the internet and chat with friends on Minecraft. It is essential that they are able to communicate with their friends on the chat section of Minecraft or in forums where they are trying to get answers to their questions. This has motivated them to learn to spell well so that they are understood by their friends.

Vocabulary

I have seen the boys vocabulary expand a lot as they learn new words through friends or on the internet in articles they are reading about Minecraft. Many times they use words that me and their Dad are amazed by. Their new vocabulary spills out into their every day conversations. I can’t imagine that my forced vocabulary lists would have yielded boys who use language as well as they do.

Science

Both Cameron and Caleb have asked to go to the library to get books about diamonds, obsidian, gold, silver and other gemstones. They have learned a lot about the layers of the earth. They have learned about all types of stone, wood, gemstones, caves and mining. Their love of Minecraft has peeked their interest in all sorts of geological study.

They have also become interested in Bioms. There are deserts, jungles, forests and oceans on Minecraft. Many different creatures live within the different biomes and the kids have loved learning about them all and often jump over to the internet to explore one biome or another.

Creativity

I have seen a surge of creativity in the boys since they started playing Minecraft. Cameron’s love of drawing has expanded to drawing worlds of Minecraft scenery. Caleb has come up with stories about Minecraft characters. They have learned to invent tools and other things that help them problem solve in their game. Caleb and I even built a real stone pickax out of sticks and stones at the family farm recently.

I see them being more creative about problem solving in real life as well. They are more likely now to work out a problem for themselves, rather than ask me for a solution. They seem to be getting more creative in everything they do.

Math and Spacial Reasoning Skills

In order to build a structure that is functional as well as visually pleasing, you must develop math and spacial reasoning skills. I have seen the boys figure out in their heads how many blocks will be necessary for a foundation – doubling, tripling and even quadrupling that number in their heads and then apply that to a building in Minecraft. I have witnessed them taking an idea in their minds and building complete cities with recessed lighting and fountains and statues and stores using spacial reasoning and math skills. They are figuring it out on their own without any “formal” training in engineering. It really is remarkable to see some of the things they’re building. I also have Minecraft installed on my computer and haven’t had near the success that these kids do. Obviously, spacial reasoning and I don’t get along very well.


If you’re worried that your child is playing too many video games or that they seem to spend a lifetime on Minecraft, just know and trust that they ARE learning. Play the game yourself to get an idea of the difficulties that must be endured just to survive much less build elaborate cities. Talk to your kids and listen to what they are doing and how they are figuring out HOW to do it.

They ARE learning from these games. Many times it’s obvious that they are gaining valuable skills and sometimes it looks just like play. Gaming is truly an amazing way to explore the world if we can just let go of our preconceived ideas about it and let our children (and ourselves) thrive at it.

-Michelle

Learn more about Michelle on our Contributors page.

Online Driver’s Ed

You wouldn’t hand your 16-year-old the keys to your car one day and they immediately hit the freeway at 70mph.

They’ve watched you drive since they were born.  Toddlers start to connect that a key is required to start the engine, that you move a stick on the steering column for turn signals, and that the pedals at your feet are amazing sources of power.  You talk about things that you see or bother you or are difficult as you’re driving.  You mention people speeding, cutting you off, or tailgating.  You involve them in vehicle maintenance: pumping gas, checking tire pressure, changing the oil, etc.  Then they start sitting in the passenger seat and paying more attention, asking questions.  They get a learner’s permit and spend more time driving while you ride along observing and offering suggestions.  You take them to the farm or a parking lot or wherever and they get to drive around a bit and park.  Then you try calm side streets, then busier streets. They hopefully have opportunities to drive in the sun, rain, snow, etc. (granted snow is harder to come by in parts of Texas).  Eventually, they go up on the highway and potentially work their way up to rush hour.  

As you’re navigating the online world with your kids, consider starting their “Driver’s Ed” early so that you have plenty of opportunities to work through the various scenarios, concerns, issues, and problems that may come up.  

And it begins…

Our children see that phones, tablets, computers, and gaming systems are incredible sources of information, communication, and enjoyment.  Even very young children can use apps, make phone calls, and play games.  When we play with them and foster their curiosity we’re not only helping them build skills but we’ve established another connection point that strengthens the relationship.  Just as a young child rides in a car seat for extra protection – you may initially have preset apps or websites that they explore.  As they better understand how to use various devices, I would encourage you to reduce restrictions.   

Talk it out…

Verbalizing why we’re making the decisions that we’re making helps our children understand our choices.  It also expands their personal options and helps provide potential solutions that are respectful of others.  

I’m downloading apps/movies in case there isn’t WiFi available (or it isn’t very good).

I’m bringing headphones along so I can listen without disturbing anyone else.  

Give me a moment to finish this level so that I can stop and really hear what you’re saying.

I’m going to check another source to see if that’s accurate.

Maybe there’s another app that better suits my needs.  

I know Jill prefers messenger to text, so I’m going to contact her that way.  

I’d like to turn off my ringer before we go inside so it won’t disturb anyone.  

I like the survival aspect of Minecraft without the intensity of Five Nights at Freddy’s.  How do I find similar games?    

When they run into a complication, ask if they’d like ideas for possible solutions.  Our son was in a situation where someone he initially enjoyed gaming with began texting him constantly, even if our son had expressed not wanting to play (or play a particular game).  We walked through options.  For example – like how our son could be more clear about a length of time.   Instead of saying, “not now”, he would reply, “How about Friday?”.

Learner’s permit…

So many of these online resources rely on e-mail to create a login and to track individual preferences or achievements.  I strongly recommend creating an e-mail address dedicated 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 an e-mail for our children through Google.  (Now, you can just create a single Google account to be used for e-mail, YouTube, Drive, etc.)  In the settings, we chose to have their incoming emails automatically forwarded to ours so that we didn’t have to constantly log-out of our e-mail  to log-in to theirs.  This allowed us to help them process the information/emails they were receiving.  (Our daughter still has no interest in her e-mail and never checks it herself.)  

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 judgements 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 to use.

Get your own accounts too.  My husband and I have accounts on MinecraftSteamOriginRobloxSkypeFacebookTwitterInstagramSnapchatYouTubeSchool of DragonsLeague of LegendsKhan AcademyCoursera, etc.  Anything that interests them.  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.   We don’t know everything about every game or YouTube channel.   We certainly don’t play or watch as much as our children, but when we watch or play with them, we learn the “lingo”.   Gaming terms such as DLCNPCFPS, as well as the names of their favorite YouTubers.   Later, when we can’t play with them, but they’re telling us about a new app, game, or YouTube upload (like while I’m cooking dinner) – we can fully participate in the conversation because we know what they’re talking about.

Driving on their own…

For our family, keeping the lines of communication open and being positively involved in their online/gaming life has been the best way to help them navigate that realm. Some parents rely on stringent internet blocking software or tight personal controls on their children’s activity.  Unfortunately, this can provide a false sense of security and at worst, can result in children who rebel in secret with no guidance.  There are numerous ways around parental controls and filtering.  Tech savvy kids can circumvent blocks, set up secondary accounts/e-mails, acquire their own devices, and access the internet outside of your home.  By setting up accounts/access early, by asking questions without judgement, by offering gentle information about pitfalls, and by allowing them to make mistakes – we have fostered a trusting and supportive environment they don’t feel the need to circumvent.

Don’t forget the insurance…

Accidents happen.  Other drivers are careless.  Sometimes we make a poor decision in an unfamiliar situation.  

Downloading new games and content can be scary.  No one wants to have their computer overrun by malicious programs.  Invest in good anti-virus and anti-malware protection.  Downloading mods for Minecraft and other games is incredibly popular.  Together, you can learn how to research developers, recognize the difference between an ad and the actual download, and how to fully remove unintended downloads.  Consider adding a password requirement to prevent unintentional downloads or in-app purchases on phones & tablets.  It was ME who inadvertently spent $10 on a special character in a free app that instituted the password requirement.  We don’t use it to block the kids, just as an extra “alert” that we’re about to spend money.  Talk about internet safety like not sharing personal information to strangers and ways to respond to bullying.

If you’d like to talk with other Unschooling families about possible solutions to concerns, learn more about facilitating your children’s interests, or just meet more people on this journey – please join us on the Texas Unschoolers Facebook Group.  

-Rachel

Learn more about Rachel on our Contributors page.

Image credit: Rachel Miller (our son playing Color Symphony on Steam)