Like many other 7-year-old boys, Richie Fox likes cartoons, video games and Legos.
The Mesa boy has dissected frogs and made a baking soda volcano.
But unlike most kids his age, Richie has never taken a test and doesn’t go to school.
He is “unschooled” by his mom, Cindy Fox. Unschooling is a segment of the homeschooling population that doesn’t use a set curriculum, and instruction is driven by student interest. Parents of unschooled children describe the approach as the natural way to learn.
“Fish swim, birds fly, people learn,” Cindy Fox said. “Nobody teaches a child to walk, nobody teaches them to talk. They learn because they want to. Why do people think that stops when they turn 5 or 6?”
The popularity of unschooling is difficult to determine as state and local agencies do not track the practice. There are 9,412 home-schooled students — which includes an unspecified number of “unschooled” — registered with the Maricopa County Schools Superintendent’s Office.
But the Phoenix Unschoolers online group has 110 families registered.
Group moderator Karin Curtin said some may have joined out of curiosity but don’t practice unschooling. And “there are probably a lot of unschoolers in the Valley who aren’t on the Phoenix Unschoolers list, as well,” she said.
Richie attended a Montessori preschool for half a year, but wasn’t happy with a new teacher.
It was his idea to be homeschooled.
“He said, ‘Why can’t I stay home and you teach me?’ ” Cindy Fox said.
She’s a certified college instructor, and at the time Richie’s dad, Mark, was going to school for a degree in elementary education.
Cindy Fox, who runs a computer business from home, began researching curriculum. The Arizona standards seemed repetitive to her.
“Unschooling seemed to make sense to me,” she said. “Let the child set the timetable.”
Cindy Fox said students are more productive in a one-onone setting than in a classroom.
Mark Fox, a science teacher at Higley’s Coronado Elementary School, said he was reluctant at first, but now thinks it’s “awesome.”
But he doesn’t think one approach to schooling is better than another.
“Everybody’s different, not everybody fits into the public school system,” he said. “It’s a great institution, but it’s not for everyone. It’s not for my kids. It was great for me and 85 to 90 percent of the kids I teach. (Others) don’t do well — they need to do their own thing.”
Richie’s 15-year-old brother, Lane, switched to unschooling a year ago.
Cindy said even in the unschooling community, her family is considered “radical.”
Richie tends to stay up until 2 a.m. and sleep until noon.
He doesn’t have rules or chores. If he utters a curse word, there is no reaction. On a recent Friday afternoon, his breakfast of eggs and toast turned cold on the table while he played in the backyard.
“We try to run by principles rather than rules,” Cindy Fox said. “I don’t like punishment — I don’t think it works.”
Cindy usually gets up around 8:30 a.m. or 9 a.m. and works while Richie sleeps. Some days they stay home, and other days they go out.
They visit the zoo and the science center, go to museums and take field trips.
Today they are going to Estrella War, an annual event near Florence that depicts a medieval village.
On Thursdays, they join the Roots and Shoots — a servicelearning group popular with home-schooling families — to participate in that week’s activity.
Last Thursday, the group visited the Phoenix Herpetological Society in Scottsdale. The group has also picked oranges to donate to a local food shelter and raised money for orphanages in Sierra Leone.
Richie is interested in science, geography and art, and he goes to Clay Club once a week.
One day last week, he created levees and a river in his Mesa backyard while his mom talked to him about how the levee broke in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.
“We read together, but numbers are more of his interest,” Cindy Fox said. “I won’t push him to read at a certain level until he’s ready. He knows the basics — can write well and do numbers well. He hasn’t shown interest in reading. He’ll learn later, but faster at that time.”
Anne Goldfeld of Scottsdale incorporates elements of unschooling while requiring her five children, ages 4 to 11, to cover core subjects on a daily basis using workbooks and textbooks. Part of their day is guided by the children’s interests, and they visit the library, cook, do science experiments and go to museums.
“We are what you would refer to as eclectic,” Goldfeld said. “We follow some principles of experiential learning, but I do incorporate some book learning.”
Lane went to public school about halfway through eighth grade.
“I kept skipping, going with them to their groups,” Lane said. “I met some cool people — nicer than at school. I decided to try it for a couple months and stuck with it.”
Lane spends a lot of his time with friends playing in a band called Self Apathy and skateboarding.
The teen home-schooled groups meet less frequently than groups for younger students, so he’s looking to take math classes with the Eagleridge Enrichment Program through Mesa Unified School District.
“I haven’t been doing anything lately, kind of de-schooling for a while, relaxing,” Lane said. “Now I want to do something.”
Though he’s been relaxing, Lane says he’s grown a lot in the last year.
“I was quiet, withdrawn around kids my age,” he said. “Now people follow me a lot. I don’t like that. I (prefer) them to give me their opinions.”
Or Skolnik, 19, was unschooled in Phoenix, and the first official test he took was his driver’s license test.
The next test he took was an admissions test to attend community college at age 16. He got a perfect score.
Today, he’s a junior at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., majoring in government.
When his fellow students learn that he was unschooled, they are sometimes surprised he’s not socially awkward — the stereotypical image of a home-schooler, he said.
“They’re surprised when I am sociable and easy to get along with,” he said. “It’s not like I was locked in a room for the first 18 years of my life. I did activities all around Phoenix.”
Growing up, Skolnik participated in Valley Youth Theatre and was more interested in reading and writing than math.
“When I needed to take a math test to place in college, I took a few months to learn it because I knew I would need it for practical reasons,” he said. “It wasn’t my first priority as far as teaching myself.”
Skolnik said his parents helped him a lot when he was younger, but as he got older, he self-taught and they would help him find resources.
“A lot of people asked me how unschooling and homeschooling compares (to school),” he said. “My answer is, it worked for me. I can’t say how it would work for anyone else. I don’t think it’s the valid method, but I think it’s a valid method.”
Home educators conference
The Home Education Network of Arizona is hosting its 2007 conference from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Feb. 24-25 at Arizona State University. The event will include sessions on “unschooling.” For more information, visit www.hena.us.