Unschooling and living happily with screens

It seems like a lot of parenting fears around screens come from the idea that there is ‘real, meaningful life’ and then there are screens, which somehow lure children away from their real, meaningful lives. ‘Screen time’ has become equated with wasted time, no matter what the activity is that’s actually taking place, and all sorts of deep parental worries are triggered by this belief. But, the belief that screens must be restricted in order for our children to live life well generally has exactly the opposite outcome. When our homes become battlegrounds, the resulting emotions of guilt, irritation, regret, and anger (to name but a few) take everyone far away from connection, creativity and real living. And so, in that sense, the whole screen time battle certainly takes its toll on real life and relationships. From within that tense space, it then becomes difficult to shift anything, as everyone gets increasingly entrenched in their positions.

It took me a while to figure it all out, and there was certainly plenty of fear, guilt and irritation involved. But, over the years, any worries have quietly fallen by the wayside, and technology and screens are just interwoven into our children’s days, like they are into ours. They relax with them, connect with other people, learn, research and create things. Sometimes, like most people, they use screens to zone out, or because it’s an easy solution to boredom, but they’re pretty good at spotting when that happens. As they get older, I appreciate more and more how much of the world technology has brought into our house and the myriad ways in which it facilitates me staying connected with my children’s interests and with them. 

Since access to technology has not been restricted, there has always been an easy interchange of ideas and thoughts around safety, the kinds of ads that we are fed by different platforms, and the unreliability of many sources. I am open with my frustration when I get sucked into some Youtube shorts vortex and 20 minutes of my life goes on random stuff I have no interest in. I call it out when I notice that social media is feeling heavy rather than light. I think it’s important to be aware of how all these systems work, and for us to be empowered to exercise our own choice in it all. And so, it makes sense to me that in order for our children to develop the ability to navigate the online world with discernment, then we need to facilitate a non-judgemental space within which all these things can be openly discussed. It’s difficult to have that trust and openness if screens are a thorny topic in the home.

So, after many years of unrestricted technology, here’s how it all looks for us right now:

C’s main research project these days is chinchillas. She has her heart set on getting two chinchillas at some point in the near future. She has done huge amounts of online research on the different kinds of chinchilla and what they need in terms of care and living space. She has found all the supplies these future chinchillas will need and added up the cost so that I can plan chinchilla-buying into our budget. She has even located the nearest breeder and is thinking of the questions she might ask them. She has also gotten extremely frustrated by the fact that when you look something up online there might be five different people saying five different things and all sounding right. This is important when you’re trying to figure out where a chinchilla’s home should be placed. So, she tries to figure out which might be a reliable source. 

C has also been busy messaging dog owners on the website borrowmydoggy, as the dog we usually walk is going away for a couple of months. One owner got straight back to her and we’ve arranged to meet a black poodle called Alfie tomorrow for a walk.

And so it flows. E is learning guitar with an app. There’s no contest between this app and sheet music, because not only does it correct him when he makes a mistake, but it allows him to play guitar with his favourite bands. He also uses his phone to search for new songs along with their lyrics so he can play along and sing. He and D are both natural linguists and they use Youtube to find interesting music they can sing along to – the more obscure the language, the better (or so it seems to me). One of the joys of this house is the number of languages I hear in any one day, always discovered first on a screen.

Researching animals and learning guitar and languages may sound ‘good’, but gaming is no less worthy. C has a few games she plays online, mostly Roblox and Star Stable. Over time, these have become more sociable for her, and she now has a little group of local friends who join up together (sometimes in person and sometimes online) and chat as they’re playing. They also create Roblox dance routines, which she painstakingly edits then uploads to Youtube. This has also led her to try out different editing and design apps, and she is becoming adept at graphic design. In an entirely different Roblox offshoot, she and her friends often recreate the dances themselves when they get together. Occasionally in one of these online games, someone from outside of her group will do something unethical or be unpleasant, in which case my daughter immediately calls them out on it and reports them. I was sitting with her a couple of weeks ago as she went through this process, and wondered out loud if she should just let something go. Her disappointment that I would place having a peaceful life over justice was admirable, and I had to rethink my stance on that.

Star Stable also involves a fair amount of life skills as well as tapping into C’s desire to own 30 horses. Here, she is part of a club that puts on dressage events within the game. When she is the nominated trainer, she has to turn up at a specific time and direct the dressage lesson, for which she has to prepare in advance. Every now and again, one person in the club gets upset, things get rocky and the whole thing disbands then comes together under a new name. C has deftly navigated this tricky territory of online friendships. Again, her ability to self-advocate and also stay out of the affray is impressive. A little time on Star Stable will often lead naturally into some research of horse breeds. One of my favourite moments with C is when I am invited to cuddle up with her on the sofa and be treated to a tour of her online stable and horses. As she shows me each horse and explains their name and personality, I can feel how meaningful all this is to her, and I am honoured to be invited in.

D loved to game for a few years, and he credits gaming for helping him develop a number of skills, such as discipline and quick reflexes, that he sees help him in his newfound interests such as martial arts. He occasionally spends a few hours gaming, but it’s a fairly rare occurrence. Some years ago, they would have Minecraft afternoons, where all three would get together in the same room (sometimes along with a friend) and play Minecraft. These were real feel-good afternoons, with lots of fun and laughter. Very occasionally now, they get together and play a game. I love to see the three of them, now aged between 10 and 17, connecting through something they all enjoy and just having fun in each other’s company. 

Something we’ve all got into recently is the geography app, Seterra. Well, D and E have been using it for a while, but C and I are newcomers. I have long known that I have some pitiful knowledge gaps (despite all those years of school) so I am doing daily quizzes of countries and cities of the world to get me up to speed. Whenever D or E catches me on it they challenge me to something and I invariably lose. Yesterday I was beaten by D at regions of Norway, and by E at Caribbean islands. C has been inspired by all of this and, in a couple of days, has been able to get most of the states of the US correct, and most of the countries of Europe. Would it have been more valuable if we had been using an Atlas to quiz each other? Not really, just a little less fun as we couldn’t have all done it at the same time. 

I am shown countless freshly-discovered videos every day. Today (among other things) I watched The Hu, which is a Mongolian throat singing metal band, a video about economics, one about Somali pirates, a speech by Fidel Castro, and a very lovely old English folk song about trees. D also showed me the video of the song On the road to Mandalay, which he came across when he was researching war songs. He saw it was originally a poem by Rudyard Kipling, who, I remembered, once lived in a village not far from us. So we spent a little while looking up Rudyard Kipling and pondering taking an outing some time to his old house. This also led into a brief conversation about colonialism (Kipling was a staunch imperialist).

E meanwhile spends many hours online researching maps and languages from around the world. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of our planet’s geography as he’s been doing this research for years now. His catch phrase in the house is, “Do you want to know something interesting?”, and sure enough, he always has something interesting to offer. E’s online research has no doubt fuelled his huge desire to travel and his openness to learning many languages.

As I was pondering this all yesterday evening, a little example of the fluidity of screens and ‘real life’ unfolded. C was feeling a bit bored, so D suggested she download a game that he and E play occasionally so they could all play online together. After some deliberating, they couldn’t decide on a game. So C remembered a board game we’d all played some time ago and suggested they played that instead. I joined them and a couple of hours later, we were still playing and having a great time. It reminded me of the happy Minecraft afternoons, and that the medium isn’t really the point. The point is the same whether it’s online or offline: connection, fun, interest, relationship, autonomy, mastery. This is real life and it’s certainly meaningful.

Some ideas for living happily with technology:

  • Be interested and curious about what your children do online.
  • Don’t be dismissive about things they choose to do. If you are mystified about their choice, try to understand some more.
  • Keep the conversation open and inviting around the potential hazards: safety, unreliable information sources, unpleasant characters, algorithms designed to suck us in.
  • Celebrate the things they celebrate! Embrace what they love.
  • If they’re gaming, have a go yourself. Your child may well be delighted to show you what they’re doing.
  • Notice their interests. Maybe there are other experiences you can suggest to help them delve deeper if they want to?
  • Stay attuned to how they are, rather than what they’re doing. Are they happy and enjoying what they’re doing or are they a bit bored and in need of connection?
  • Observe yourself and the things that trigger you.


Thriving beyond school. The deschooling workshop

This two-hour online session will provide you with the tools you need to accompany your child on their journey of learning beyond school and to hold an open, curious and joyful space within which the whole family can thrive.
Next session: April 26th, 2023

Click here for more information and to book your place:

Mindful parenting 6-week course

This six-week, on-line course is for parents who want to explore how practising mindfulness can transform their parenting and their relationship with their children. It is particularly suited to parents of neurodivergent children and those outside of mainstream schooling.
Starting April 13th, 2023

Click here for more information and to book your place

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