Living the Unschooled Life - SAM 2023
Get-togethers of unschooling families feel like a sacred space for creative incubation
There were many good things that happened last week at the 4-day residential meet of families of unschooled and homeschooled children in Belgundi, near Belgaum in Karnataka. Nearly 300 people had come together for 4 days at Shoonya Farm Retreat, a 60-room property on a 40-acre estate to mingle, play, connect and exchange learnings on making unconventional life choices. The Swashikshan Annual Meet or SAM 2023 was a brilliant example of how synchronicity and serendipity can emerge when we are willing to embrace uncertainty and depend on trust rather than control to make things happen.
Despite the hectic socializing, early morning sessions and late night music and games, we returned rejuvenated and refreshed as individuals.
All days were divided into various 90-minute slots between meal times and participants were invited to offer simultaneous sessions on topics of their interest and expertise. Some shared skills like origami, sketching and crochet, others offered discussions on universal challenges like raising teens and toddlers and many others facilitated games, workshops and healing sessions. Often, we reminded each other of the 2-foot principle – feel free to walk in or walk out of any session based on your immediate need. Honour each other, but first be alert to your own consciousness.
Overwhelmed by recent events in my own life, I found that I did not have the energy to offer any sessions, even though in previous meets I have conducted workshops on writing and discussions around civil society’s response to communal polarization. This time I needed rest. I wanted quiet and solitude and often chose to go on long walks with my daughter towards the nearby village to restore my balance. I paid attention to trees, admired the miracles of nests and resting cats and had random conversations with people in shops and bus-stops outside the campus.
As my mind tries to sift through the experiences of listening, sharing and participating in the SAM sessions, I am amazed at the even-ness of my memory. The first session I attended on 22nd January was hosted by parents, Pashwa and Jim and titled Conscious Parenting. The last one on 25th January was hosted by Upasana, a young adult, on Understanding Neurodiversity. In between there were sessions by Niom, another young adult on his own unschooling journey, an introduction to Elements of Music and on his venture titled ‘Let’s Play’. Sharmila, a parent of three school-age children hosted meetings on the differences between unschooling and homeschooling and the various creative choices available for those who choose to sit for school Board exams without being enrolled in regular schools. Sanjeevani facilitated sessions on healing via Access Bars and journaling. Hema shared her family’s journey of leaving the city and living in a rural community. Abhi, a 19-year-old musician invited peers to talk about drugs and other temptations of their age. Manish organized opening and closing circles and never failed to wave his magic wand, making everyone dance and laugh despite their inhibitions.
The football ground always had players and the swimming pool was forever inviting. There were impromptu choreography lessons and karaoke sessions. Much else happened and I will have to return year after year to savour all of it.
One of the most heart-warming sights was observing volunteers like Shweta, Tejas, Nrupesh and Pashwa who had organized the logistics of this mega get-together respond to the needs of individuals with calm and generosity despite their exhaustion and the stress of others. Teenagers walked into the session where parents were sharing challenges and strategies about parenting teens. Parents gathered around young adults talking about their choices and experiences. I walked in and out of sessions based on what I felt called to do in the moment and nearly everything I heard and paid attention to has stayed with me like a separate layer of sediment in a jar of precious memories.
To quote Dola Dasgupta, a Pune-based parent who writes and shares magnanimously about her learnings and experience with unschooling, “Many people think Unschooling is about the absence of academics. That is not true. Unschooling is not opposed to academics, curriculum, college. It is about creating a space and pace for children to have free play, free range explorations, open ended learning experiments…Unschooling is not about rejecting money pursuits but about developing one's own intimate relationship with livelihoods that bring money to fulfil personal needs.
“Do parents have the patience and tenacity to slow down, to wait, to work on their own fears and insecurities around money and livelihoods? That is the real question and the real work for parents.”
As an introduction to the idea of living a life based on autonomy, free play and self-directed learning, an excerpt from The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell, also shared by Dola, comes to mind.
“One evening I was in my favourite restaurant and at the next table there was a father, a mother and a scrawny boy about 12 years old. The father said to the boy, "Drink your tomato juice." And the boy said, “I don't want to”.
Then the father, with a louder voice, said, “Drink your tomato juice.” And the mother said, “Don't make him do what he doesn't want to do”.
The father looked at her and said, “He can't go through life doing what he wants to do. If he does only what he wants to do, he'll be dead. Look at me. I've never done a thing I wanted to in all my life”.
In his conversation with Bill Moyers, Campbell goes on to say, “That is a man who never followed his bliss. You may have success in life, but then just think of it - what kind of life was it? What good was it - you’ve never done a thing you wanted to do in your life. I always tell my students, go where your body and soul want to go. When you have the feeling, then stay with it, and don't let anyone throw you off.”
One of the highlights of the days spent together was the Mela organized on the third evening for children and adults to showcase their art, crafts, games, magic tricks and other offerings. In the spirit of gift culture and sharing, many amongst us set up pop-up stalls on the lawns and then browsed around, striking up conversations and buying pretty things from each other. It was a delight to see young unschoolers emerge as budding artists and entrepreneurs.
Get-togethers like SAM and the annual Learning Societies unconference where like-minded families find a peer group and become role models for each other are like a sacred space for creative incubation. Sometimes it can seem overwhelming, as if too many things are happening at the same time. Yet it is also a great place to practice autonomy, to reclaim one’s uniqueness and restore boundaries. Just as we had laughed freely on most days, many of us cried freely as well.
We all returned with light and freshness in our soul.
If this account of SAM 2023 made you wish you were there, watch out for LSuC 2023. Coming soon…
(a shorter version of this essay was first published in The Sunday Tribune)
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This is wonderful peep into the community of people who are thinking differently , excellent write up , want to beca part of it next time
many thanks dear Natasha for this amazing tour into the wonderland of unschooling … looking forward to learning more about this inspiring way of living & learning