Unschooling with the 4 R’s

Muscat al Ansab Wetlands

While I love the philosophy of self-directed education, there’s a part of me that can’t totally comply. I categorize our family as unschooling because we have no interest in recreating school at home or complying with a standard curriculum. However, now that Z is seven, we’re ready to introduce more structure and order to her skill development. If school is in her future, we want her to have the tools to succeed, but we’re prepared to support other paths of education and self-development too.


The only non-negotiable features of our homeschooling life has been character development, limited media use, lots of books and reading, and the study of Qur’an. We’ve been teaching Z how to read and recite the Holy Qur’an in a very gentle, casual way since she first became interested in it. More than a lesson, it’s a part of our daily rhythm and interaction. Additionally, we’ve introduced the Ghazali Children’s Project to our homeschooling, so each week one lesson is completed with the accompanying workbook.


For now, I write Z’s answers from her Ghazali lesson and then she copies them into her workbook for her copywriting work. We’re practicing the use of lower case letters because Z primarily writes with capital letters. Years ago, I tried to teach writing with tracing books but she never took interest. Instead, she drew her way to excellent hand control and capital letter proficiency, especially when her dad introduced the idea of comic books and character dialogue to her.


We’ve always done a lot of reading and sounded out letters as needed for artwork, Thank You and Holiday cards, and whatever signs and Welcome banners she would make around the house. I remember trying to introduce a phonics reader and though Z was capable of reading it, she had no interest. Instead she would ask, “Can you just read to me?” I considered her response a show of laziness, but when she started spontaneously reading last year, I realized that she just enjoys being read to and has been working out the mechanics and art of reading in her own mind all along. Even though she’s a strong reader on her own now, she can’t help but lean in when I read to Moulay or she’ll read a book herself and then ask me to read it to her again.



I love math but have been wondering how to expose Z to math in a comprehensive and logical way. When a friend suggested Khan Academy for Early Math lessons, I knew the idea of having her own user account and access to the online academy would be appealing. She has been pleading to do more math on the weekends when her other lessons have been completed. We’re available to step in if she’s stumped, but for the most part she’s navigating her way independently just fine.

As for other subjects like science, geography, and history, they are learned incidentally and introduced according to interest or relevance. Having no curriculum means that her knowledge base may not be identical to that of her peers, but once the tools for acquiring knowledge are well established, I trust that the rest of the puzzle pieces will fall into place. Our weekly co-op is also a great way for introducing new topics and styles of information delivery that we haven’t covered yet.

An interesting point about homeschooling that came up in a Raising Free People webinar I attended was that the true test of self-direction in education is asking what would happen if the child did not comply. Is there punishment or loss of privileges? For us, completing the weekly checklist means earning a few hours of weekend media time. It certainly doesn’t feel like a punishment to us because media time is non-essential in our home, but the privilege can be loss for other reasons like lying or general lack of cooperation in essential matters, for example. Other than a bit of procrastination, the current approach seems to be working at the moment and we’ll continue to tweak and experiment as the need arises.

Any other homeschoolers struggling with totally self-directed education or unschooling?


Cultivating Community for Homeschooling and Life

OmanA constant theme in our life abroad is the search for community. We were very blessed to experience true bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood once upon a time, but eventually those ties frayed as individuals followed their hearts and purposes elsewhere. Before coming to Muscat, the question crept up again and I’m pleased to report that the pursuit has been promising.


Sunday night, the eve before a national holiday commemorating the birth of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him and his family), three families gathered to remember his life and legacy. We had a vegan-friendly and mostly gluten-free spread while we shared stories, poems, and crafts. Children played, parents chatted and reflected, and it feels like we have a community again—a space where we can share a common aim and respect and be respected for who we are.


Ultimately, we’re more driven to build a community for our children than our own selves. Urbndervish and I have found contentment in each other’s company, but for Lil’ Z and Moulay, we are intentional about seeking out friendships and connections that are enriching, affirming, and nurturing for them. When living abroad, some communities are formed around nationality or faith. For us as a Muslim, Black, Jamaican/American, and homeschooling/unschooling family we intersect a number of expat communities. Most American expatriate families are connected to diplomatic relations, military work, or church. Even within the homeschooling communities, it’s not unusual to find groups exclusively representing one faith, nationality, or language.


Here in Muscat, the gateway to meeting our new friends has been the modest but diverse homeschooling community. Some say we’re only a dozen actively homeschooling families, but regardless of the numbers on Whatsapp groups and Facebook pages, I’m discovering that statistics mean little in this regard. At the end of the day, this elusive concept of community comes down to the people: individuals who participate, connect, and commit to one another again and again. Sometimes I’m nervous. I worry if our children see each other too often, but then again I consider that most children go to school with more or less the same cohort day after day and sometimes year after year.


Right now, the chemistry is good and I’m praying this honeymoon stage won’t end. I’m excited about the friendships we all are developing. We plan gatherings, field trips, classes, co-ops and camping excursions together. I’m filled with so much hope but, also fear that it may fall apart with only the slightest friction. However, like any community, we can only exist by putting one foot before the other by forgiving when we falter, stretching when we grow, and committing to what we’ve created. While few of us are historically rooted in Oman, I believe there are enough of us who want to build a future here and hold space for more families to join our unorthodox path of home education and life abroad.


Montessori for Nomads: Two to Three Years Old

Chef Z

Disclaimer: This is not intended to be a Montessori tutorial in any way, shape or form; but rather, this is intended to share how we attempt to incorporate our understanding of Montessori principles in a DIY-minimalist-eco-friendly-raggamuslim-kinda way. Proceed, if you wish.

Montessori for Nomads:  Birth to Six Months

Montessori for Nomads:  Six to Twelve Months

Montessori for Nomads:  Twelve to Eighteen Months

Montessori for Nomads:  Eighteen Months to Two Years

Hopefully by the age of two, your child understands that putting non-food items in her mouth is unsavory and undesirable.  The boundaries of an activity can be articulated more clearly and the responsibility of enjoying an activity can be understood.   These developments give way to the supervised enjoyment of playing with small items like beads for threading, cups of rice for pouring, and ingredients for cooking.  Also, at this age, your child can more clearly articulate what they want to do and, more times than not, they want to imitate what they see you doing.  The challenge for us as parents and facilitators of learning is to find safe and manageable ways for a young child to enjoy a real, productive task and not a mere simulation of one.  Here are some ways that we have supported Lil’ Z in her pursuit of real work.

Transfer Activities

Long before writing begins, little hands need to be strengthened and their movements refined.  In the Montessori paradigm, this effort can begin with a series of activities that transfer materials like water, rice, and beans by sponging, pouring, spooning, etc. from one container to another. What I found most challenging about such activities is that my daughter didn’t see transferring as the goal and I didn’t feel a need to stop her from exploring an activity in her very own way, on her very own terms.  My only boundary was that the activity is to stay contained in its given space.  I later concluded that a rice bin was much better for us all.  In her own free style of play, she was able to accomplish a variety of transfers through free play and exploration.  The rice bin does require a few lessons in the use of a hand broom to clean up spills and plenty of reminders about where rice does and doesn’t belong.

Rice bin activity

Sandpaper Letters

A clever way of introducing letters and their phonetic sounds is by tracing mounted sandpaper letters.  Adding the tactile experience to a child’s learning creates another layer of depth for their experience.  We purchased both Arabic and English sandpaper letters via My Happy Prayer Place and Enrighten.  Montessori also advocates the teaching of phonetic sounds more than letter names which is really helpful when learning to read English, but less relevant when learning Arabic.

In the Kitchen

There’s a lot of learning that can take place in the kitchen.  Of course, there’s the obvious work of cooking.  By putting ingredients in small containers, I could step back and let my daughter make the batter for her oatcakes or prepare her own morning oatmeal.  She can also use a butter knife to cut plantains and, with supervision, a dull knife to cut cucumbers.

Washing dishes

The natural byproduct of any meal is dirty dishes and eventually Lil’ Z wanted to experience the joy of dishwashing for herself.  Under the sink, we set up basins and a dish brush for dishwashing.  Though a little dish rack would be ideal, we found a dishcloth adequate for placing her washed dishes.

Handling Laundry

Loading the washing machine is an easy chore for little people, as long as they don’t try climbing in.  Eventually, they can pour detergent and help you sort light and dark-colored clothing.  Once the laundry’s done, there is a clever child-sized drying rack for toddlers to hang their clothes on but we developed our own arrangement with shoelaces tied to chairs.  Adjusted to her height, Lil’ Z can use clothespins to hang up her washcloths to dry in indoors.  Now that she’s a little taller, she can help me hang socks on our full-sized drying rack on the balcony.


When her washcloths are dry, she then folds them in halves, then in quarters.  When folding really piqued her interest, just the sight of unfolded washcloths was enough to draw her like a bee to honey .  And then she would diligently fold each and every washcloth and stack them in a pile.  It was amazing to see her focus and concentration, even without my prompting or participation; but once that new task was mastered, it never captivated her interest in the same way.  We later progressed to folding pants and shirts.

Arts and Crafts

At around 2 ½ years old, we entered the wild world of art.  Play dough was relatively easy, so was cutting and gluing, but painting took much more mental preparation for me.  With the encouragement of a teacher friend of mine, we started with finger painting and progressed to paintbrushes and sponge painting.  As I much as I thought I wasn’t ready for the mess of paint, it wasn’t so bad.  A smock and old newspapers kept the paint spills contained, and seeing Lil’ Z’s satisfaction made it all worthwhile.

Threading wooden beads and cardboard shapes with shoelaces is another crafty activity that develops fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination.

My beaded necklace

Real Life Learning

Lil’ Z and I have developed a wonderful synergy during our days together.  Our relationship has evolved and become a partnership.  Every day, my goal is to make sure all of our needs our met in the most peaceful, graceful way possible.  There are the basic needs of rest, food, and protection but Lil’ Z also needs healthy doses of focused attention, meaningful work, and free time.  For me, I need quiet time for prayer and devotion, exercise, time for housecleaning and some internet time for communication and writing.  I used to do the housecleaning when Lil’ Z was asleep but have come to learn that she should know  the joy and effort that maintaining a home requires.  This is a lesson in itself.  There is no maid and no magic wand.  We make time for work, play, and rest.

All in all, we weave together a day that is fulfilling. Without sitting down for lessons, Lil’ Z is learning a lot.  The richness of our family relationships teaches both the tangible and intangible.  We try to embody the character we want her to emulate and speak to her with the same respect and clarity that we hope she will use.  Our rotated selection of activities and manipulatives aid in her development also, and I can’t highlight the importance of reading.  At both naptime and bedtime, Lil’ Z delights in the world of her books before settling to sleep.

In the evenings, Urbndervish joins us, and he and Lil’ Z relish in their unbound collective creativity.  They draw together–creating characters, stories, and giggle-worthy goofiness.  After sharing our dinner meal and talking about our days, I retreat into the background to let them have at it.  I can’t even begin to express how Lil’ Z adores her dad, but that’s a post for another day.

All in all, we’re grateful for the vision and model that Montessori offers us.  We may not practice it all wholesale, but we see the benefits in what we do implement.  For now, our daughter is unapologetically unschooled in an attempted Montessori home environment, and we have yet to see any indication that she’s missing what a standard classroom has to offer.