banner
How Pokémon Sealed our Unschooling Fate
A former teacher tosses out the curriculum and frees her child and herself from the structured, planned, adult-knows-all paradigm.

My son was six when Pokemon entered our world. The cute and odd-looking characters quickly became his thing, his focus, the topic he explored in as many ways as possible. For a little while, I was like the Pokemon themselves, using my ‘special powers’ (my debit card to purchase or not purchase cards each time we entered a Target) and my personal experience points (a Masters degree in Special Education, past work in public schools, and organizing/suggesting curriculum for a private school) to justify why I needed to be in control of what and how he learns. I just knew my skills gave me insight more powerful than my son’s. How could Pokemon be taken seriously as a valid learning tool anyway? It was a toy, a game, not a carefully devised curriculum by highly educated professionals with resources, rubrics, scaffolding, and tests. Pfft.

Pokémon figures

Needless to say, I was guarded and resistant to support this interest. I wondered how devoting time to collecting and trading cards, playing a card game, and watching videos on YouTube could amount to anything. I was trapped in “school-think.” The system that taught me to believe that knowledge was handed down from adult to child, that kids must be guided and given to was a force to be reckoned with. Plus, there was an entire industry devoted to preparing just the right materials to ensure kids were learning exactly what they needed to. Topics and standards were even broken down into ages and grades, so how could that be wrong?

Time went by. I did a lot of observing. What I saw was life changing. My six-year-old, non-reader son was memorizing cards: Not just a few words either, but small paragraphs of information. He began to recognize words like “experience” and “attack.” He memorized the names of the characters, loads of them, and he knew their basic form and their evolved form. He knew their types: dragon, grass, electric, water, steel, flying, and the list went on. He was doing mental math by calculating the attack amounts and how much damage could be done. He was immersing himself in a topic of interest and developing a vast amount of knowledge, becoming quite the expert, while thoroughly enjoying himself.

Child with PokéBall cake

I went from resistant to convinced that this is what learning is all about. Instead of me coming up with topics, creating a schedule and plan, then telling him what and how to learn, I got out of the way. It was freedom for him and freedom for me! He ultimately won the battle that he had no idea he was fighting. And, fortunately for us both, I evolved as a stronger, more confident parent in the process. Pokemon paved the way for our transition into unschooling–free and self-directed learning. Isn’t that what we all ultimately strive for? Freedom to learn and pursue knowledge that appeals to us?

Although there is no one way to pursue a passion or delve into an interest, here is how my son’s basically unfolded:

1. Purchase card packs as often as possible, amassing hundreds of cards in a short period of time.

2. Trade said cards with friends, but hold onto the “cool, rare, ones.”

3. Join a Pokemon Club or create one and invite friends.

4. Get a binder. Add clear plastic pages in order to sort and organize cards. (Who said boys don’t like things orderly?)

5. Watch YouTube video after YouTube video to became intimately aware of each Pokemon type and their respective powers and attacks.

6. Learn how to use Ebay. Bid on cards and obsessively watch to see if you won the bid!

7. Make your own Pokemon cards.

8. Teach your mom how to play the Pokemon card game and laugh when she has no clue what she is doing.

9. Sharpen your card-game skills because your mom is now much better and is a real challenge.

10. Go to local gaming events and practice playing against other kids.

11. Buy the Pokemon games to play on your Nintendo DS and have your mom read all the instructions to you at first. Eventually you will memorize all those, too.

12. And last but not least, have a Pokemon-themed birthday party so your mom can make you a custom PokéBall cake.