It’s taken me almost a month to write up my summary of Australia’s first unschooling retreat, and the delay belies the impact and inspiration that have I felt from being amongst like-minded unschoolers for even a short time.

Australia's first unschooling retreat, September 2010
At the unschooling retreat's section of the camp grounds, the meeting tents were decorated with strings of colourful bunting that featured inspiring quotations.

After the weekend away, I came home invigorated, encouraged and enthusiastic about this path of unschooling that we’re on. It was incredible to be part of a gathering of over 100 families who are attracted to the philosophy of forsaking coerced learning, and I am excited to be part of a growth movement as more families discover the truths that have set us free.

Australia's first unschooling retreat, September 2010
The demographic of attendees was varied. All segments of the population — from hippies to executives — were represented.

The organisers had a conference schedule that included talks from Bob Collier and Dayna Martin, and sessions concluded with a time during which the microphone was passed around. Many attendees used the opportunity to express concerns, share anecdotes and give examples of strategies that they found helpful.

Dayna Martin at Australia's first unschooling retreat, September 2010
This was the first time I heard Dayna Martin speak. She impressed me with her wisdom and non-judgemental attitude.

Martin made the point that forced learning stunts learning. She emphasised that she was not anti-school, she was pro-choice.

Children’s interests and passions are the nucleus of their learning, she said, and she gave many examples of how complex math, reading and other life skills were learned naturally and wholly by children who had been given the freedom to pursue learning at their own pace. In school, those same children would have been considered “backward” or “delayed”, and lest we felt tempted to label that kind of learning in the same way, Martin made the point: “It’s not necessary for everyone to learn the same things in life in order to succeed.”

What impressed me the most about Dayna Martin was her passion for life, for her family, and for their lifestyle. She explained that passion is infectious, and said that she deliberately surrounds her children with passionate people.

Although we are not radical unschoolers like Dayna Martin, I have nothing but the highest respect for her. I can learn a lot from her decisions, and I respect her non-judgemental attitude towards others who are different. We can all learn how to stop judging others, I’m certain.

Australia's first unschooling retreat, September 2010
Bob Collier made the point that years ago, teachers and institutions were the repository of knowledge. However, with the internet (available now in extremely portable devices), knowledge is available to all directly — without any middle men necessary.

In explaining why he chose to home-educate his son — even after his older daughter flew through her classes with brilliant marks — Collier said that it came down to a simple matter of educational efficiency. “Getting an education without school is becoming like water flowing downhill,” Collier said. He gave examples again and again on how technology has changed the way we need to learn.

Collier explained that the internet has meant that teachers are no longer infallible. And this generation is annoying in its ability and tendency to ignore instruction. Why should children sit in a classroom and listen to one person’s point of view about a subject, when they could sit in front of a computer and discover six different points of view in a matter of minutes?

Understanding the history of institutional education is important. We have schools today because they were originally created to keep children out of sweat-shops and provide the ability to read and write so they could pursue more jobs than just labouring work.

Today, schools are very well-meaning. But they were developed when there was only one way to learn — in front of a lecturing instructor. The internet has changed that for us and for our children.

One unschooling father volunteered that as an alumnus, he was invited to the prestigious Brisbane Grammar School for the unveiling of their new learning centre. He was shown into a room of computer terminals with staff wandering around, happy to assist, but otherwise not interfering with the students’ paths of online study. If one of Brisbane’s best boys’ schools has recognised that giving students unfettered access to the internet creates a huge learning advantage, how much longer will it take before parents worldwide realise that educational institutions are (for the most part) unnecessary?

The open-mic times were particularly useful and encouraging. At all times, the speakers were welcoming of comments. Those in the crowd simply raised their hand or called out a question.

Australia's first unschooling retreat, September 2010
At other times, we broke into smaller groups for discussion on particular topics, and this was a good opportunity to exchange ideas and hear where other people are on their unschooling journey.

Throughout the weekend, David took the three older girls to play at the pool and the beach. He climbed headlands with them and trekked across long bridges to discover what was on the other side. They loved their adventures with him, and he, too, enjoyed his special times with them. David discovered that it’s very easy to talk to strangers he met because the girls serve as an easy conversation opening. So while I was meeting interesting people and learning lots, he was too!

Delaney, 8 months old, at Australia's first unschooling retreat, September 2010
This is what Delaney looked like for most of the retreat (when she wasn't on my lap, chewing on my keys and flirting with the people seated behind me).

On Saturday evening, the unschooling families headed to a hall for a bush dance (barn dance). The dances were called out, and people participated enthusiastically (or just watched with amusement), and it was a wonderful, fun time for the families who were there.

Bush dancing at Australia's first unschooling retreat, September 2010
Calling the dances from the stage.

Bush dancing at Australia's first unschooling retreat, September 2010
Those who enthusiastically participated at the bush dance had a great time.

Bush dancing at Australia's first unschooling retreat, September 2010
The dance-steps were simple enough to learn quickly.

David + Dayna Martin, at Australia's first unschooling retreat, September 2010
Here's David and Dayna Martin watching the kids dancing. Dayna was given her first sausage sizzle, and we explained that it was an Australian bbq staple — sausage on bread with a slathering of tomato sauce (ketchup).

Bush dancing at Australia's first unschooling retreat, September 2010
These kids were enthusiastic participants. I think back to how I was as a teenager — I would have been filled with too much angst and self-consciousness to have such a good time. I hope my children grow up to be as free as these children that I saw dancing with such gusto.

There were a number of sessions that I missed because on Sunday I spent the whole day playing with David and the girls. However, whenever I was around the unschooling group, I made an effort to meet and talk to other unschoolers. Everyone had such different stories about their inclinations to unschooling, and I was fascinated to find commonalities with people whom I would otherwise feel were “too different” from me and my (previously) conservative ways.

One woman shared how she struggles against the pressure of her wealthy family who have always judged people on their appearances. We connected on the idea of deliberately releasing our daughters to their own sense of beauty instead of imposing a cultural burden that we grew up hating.

Another lady explained how she put her son into school at the beginning of the year — because he expressed a desire to “go to school” like some of his friends. She had to fight against all her prejudices and fears in order to support her son in his desire to learn what school was like. In the end, he only lasted three weeks. “It’s boring,” he said, and asked to stay home instead.

I was particularly inspired by Maureen Tully who told her story of unschooling her six children on their property near Canberra. She was unschooling them when homeschooling was very unpopular and weird. I can’t imagine the flack she received, if I am living in the internet age and receive a high amount of doubtful comments!

Tully’s children are grown up and have pursued a variety of careers with five of them choosing to stay close to their parents and live on the family farm. It was inspiring to dream that one day my children may be as confident and articulate as these life-long unschoolers.

I’ve written to Maureen Tully and will soon be publishing an interview where I ask her about her unschooling experience. I’m delighted to have met an older Christian woman in-the-flesh who has raised her family through unschooling, and I’m certain I can learn a lot from her wisdom.

One of the most important network sessions for me was on Monday afternoon when the micro-session of “Unschooling and faith” came together. Out of the 100 families who came to the retreat, only five Christian women came together to share their experiences and encourage each other.

I found it wonderful to speak frankly about the freedom we experience because of our trust in God our Father (rather than trusting in ourselves or our children), and it was interesting to hear how the other women struggled with the religious side of Christianity and its conflicts with the unschooling philosophy.

Unschooling has been described as a lazy way of home-schooling. But all the participants at this unschooling retreat were anything but lazy. All were making very deliberate parenting decisions — choosing to let go of controlling measures, choosing to release their children to a life of freedom. It’s actually very difficult to unschool, but I am inspired to make the effort — for my children’s sake.

If you attended the unschooling retreat, what did you take away from the event?