Understanding Unschooling

“I am always ready to learn, but I do not always like to be taught.” – Winston Churchill

In the short amount of time that my family has been on a homeschooling path, I have discovered that there are as many ways to homeschool as there are homeschoolers. When meeting fellow homeschoolers, your family’s chosen method or philosophy in homeschooling can come up. These methods can range from recreating school at home to unschooling. When I first decided to homeschool over a year ago I started searching for curricula to use with my boys. As a former elementary school teacher, I couldn’t really imagine homeschooling any other way. I read tons of blogs and reviews of various curricula to buy and which were the best to use. I picked up a few preschool and kindergarten curricula to try. I even went so far scheduleas to create a daily schedule chart to keep us in line with our goals and lessons for the day. At first, Big Brother was excited and loved the idea of school at home. (Even though he really had no concept of what school was at 3 years old.) But over time, his excitement began to wane and when I would try to introduce a new lesson it would be met with resistance. It left me feeling deflated and confused. Maybe homeschooling wasn’t the right choice. Why couldn’t I get him to sit and participate in the lessons I had planned?

While researching various homeschooling methods, I would often stumbled upon the term unschooling. My initial reaction to unschooling was not a positive one. It felt too extreme. Too risky. Too drastic. Yet, over and over I am meeting homeschoolers who are unschoolers and I think to myself: they don’t seem all that extreme. So I am in the process of understanding this philosophy of learning. My intuition tells me that this may be the right path for our family.

Sink or float experiement
Sink or float experiment

In my experience, when I loosen up on the curriculum reins and allow Big Brother’s intrinsic motivation to dictate what we are learning about, his enthusiasm is endless and his motivation is strong. Notice I said “what we are learning about.” This is probably one of my favorite pieces of unschooling. We all participate in the process of learning by exploring, questioning and researching together. And it is incredibly fun and rewarding. It happens at all times throughout the day whenever it feels right and whenever we feel the motivation because we make our own schedule. We don’t attend to certain “subjects” at certain times, we just live our life thinking about and talking about an array of subjects throughout the day.

I feel as though the word unschooling has a negative implication. It projects more of what it does not do rather than what it does do. It’s synonyms, self directed learning or child-led learning, do a better job of putting forth its true meaning. (Although there is some debate about whether or not all unschoolers are child-led learners, but I think that’s getting ahead of ourselves for now..) The more I opened my mind to this idea the more I realized that unschooling is simply allowing your child to guide their education based on their interests. Natural learning taking place in your every day world. You learn what you need to know, based on how you live your life.  John Holt, believed that

“Children who are provided with a rich and stimulating learning environment will learn what they are ready to learn, when they are ready to learn it.”

Unschooling HandbookBefore giving it any thoughtful consideration, my misinformed perception of unschooling was parents ignoring kids and letting them watch TV all day. I was mistaken. Parents can play an extremely active role serving as a facilitator and fellow learner. I have been reading one of the many books written on the topic of unschooling, The Unschooling Handbook : How to Use the Whole World As Your Child’s Classroom by Mary Griffith.

Just as every homeschooler has their own way of homeschooling, every unschooler has their own way of unschooling. Griffith writes:

“The essence of unschooling is that there is no magic formula, no simple solution-in-a-box for every child’s educational problem. Unschooling is simply a way to tailor learning to the specific needs of every child and each family. No two unschooling families follow the same path–and no two children within the same unschooling family are likely to go exactly in the same direction.”

Painting planet Earth

That leaves things rather open, doesn’t it? I think that’s what I’m drawn to. My short supply of anecdotal evidence has shown me that we need a more eclectic, unplanned, organic, and spontaneous learning environment. For the last few months, I believe our homeschooling method would be classified as unschooling and there has been so many rich and motivated learning moments than ever before. We take the time to really listen to every question Big Brother has and run with his ideas. This has led us to a variety of topics. We have discovered more about space than I ever thought I would know (even after teaching a unit on the solar system to second graders for years). We’ve explored the mechanics of how bike wheels turn. We have explored bee farming and honey making, and with spring around the corner, there has been lots of garden planning and seed planting. Unschooling, natural learning, child-led learning, life learners…call it what you will, but I find more each day that it is our chosen path to educating our boys.

What would you rather learn about? A topic that sparks your interests and motivates you to ask endless questions or a subject that someone else tells you that you must learn. No questions asked. Just to pass the test, check off that box and move on….

Need more? Read this article…Be My Guest: Unschooling Reflects Current Cognitive Research (I wanted to talk about this article in my post, but it’s such a good read, I’m just going to send you there instead.)

15 thoughts on “Understanding Unschooling

  1. Great article about unschooling! I too have a teaching degree and also a masters in reading so I tried the whole school-at-home thing. That didn’t work out for us… So here I am, years later, happily unschooling 🙂 I was leery of the label at first, but I’ve realized it’s just who we are! The love my kids have for learning is worth it!! You are right that every family’s unschooling looks different and so I look forward to getting ideas from you 🙂

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  2. We have been unschooling for a couple years now. Just by involving my kids in cooking, and allowing them to follow recipes themselves, they learn reading, writing (my 8 year old likes me to just tell her what I’m cooking and she writes it in a notebook, her idea!), spelling, abbreviation, fractions, multiplication, division, addition, science/chemistry (we’ve been learning all about baking soda recently). Not to mention meal planning, shopping, sales, money math, taxes, reading food labels (which leads to talking about organic food, GMOs, chemicals, natural and artificial ingredients, etc). And that’s just ONE aspect of learning by living life together! I really could write pages and pages of things my kids have learned in n just the last month, let alone the last 2 years.

    You might question the unschooling process at times, but I promise that even the simplest activity is a learning experience =)

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  3. Love This! The beginning of your homeschool journey sounds a lot like ours. I too, had to learn to let go of the reins and “get out of my sons way” so to speak. Anyway, sounds like you are doing great 🙂

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  4. EXCELLENT post! I followed a similiar path as you. Started with a curriculum and felt I needed a schedule, etc, etc. Then slowly found myself and my daughter naturally moving into unschooling. I read the handbook too 🙂 I find other people often have negative reactions to the term “unschooling”, thinking that it is doing nothing. It is quite the opposite and have found my daughter thriving. I do think we all get caught up in terms and labels, etc. Really, it’s about what’s working for each family I guess. I really enjoyed this read!

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    1. Thank you so much for reading! It’s really liberating and exciting to see this true passion for learning developing in my son because he’s free to learn what he’s driven by. I love every minute of it. It’s like “A-ha!” moments all day long.


  5. Have you read Peter Grey’s book Freedom to Learn? I was interested in unschooling, but still had some reservations. Then, I read Freedom to Learn, and now I’m convinced it’s the path for us. He makes such a convincing argument for unschooling from an anthropological/behavioral science pov.

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  6. This is an awesome post! I haven’t heard the term “unschooling” before. I guess it’s kind of what I do with my daughter. She’s turning 4 next month. I quit my job as a preschool/kindergarten teacher when I became pregnant with her. I worked at an outdoor school in Sweden before that. All my lessons where outdoors, learning by doing. My daughter and I spend the most of our days exploring out in nature, combined with different research projects, of whatever she is the most interested in. My thoughts used to be that this would give her a great start, before starting the “real school”. Now I’m leaning more and more towards homeschooling her. I stumbled upon your blog today. I love reading about different ways of doing it. Looking forward to more posts!

    Liked by 1 person

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