Unschooling. The word sounds so rebellious. So not allowed. Definitely not a quality education. Why am I drawn to a way of learning that sounds like it has nothing to do with learning at all?
It’s a simpler approach. Josh and I believe in living a life of simplicity. This carries over into parenting and how we feel about schooling. This article does a great job explaining the concept of Simplicity Parenting. It’s not about structure as much as it’s about unhindered curiosity. Letting children be children and explore the world around them without the burden of a full schedule and the stress of a adult-like expectations.
We enroll them in endless activities. And fill every space in their rooms with educational books, devices and toys with the average western child having in excess of 150 toys. With so much stuff children become blinded and overwhelmed with choice.
When children are overwhelmed they lose the precious down time they need to explore, reflect and release tension. Too many choices erodes happiness, robbing kids of the gift of boredom which encourages creativity and self-directed learning.
Unschooling can’t overwhelm or stress the students because the students are controlling the speed and the type of information, not the parents.
I have personal experience. I was homeschooled preschool through high school. There were a lot of benefits to this, which I’ve written about a little bit in my essay Homeschooling on the Road. I loved the ability to get my work done early in the day and pursue other things. But wasn’t it all learning? Weren’t the short films and plays that I made with friends just as educational -if not more- than the things I learned in textbooks? This hands-on exploration was what led me down my path toward filmmaking. And it didn’t feel anything like work. It felt like play. That’s the essence of unschooling entirely.
Unschooling takes the things the student is passionate about and runs with them. There aren’t a lot of textbooks, but there are a lot of resources. The library. The park. The farm. The zoo. Museums. Kids are more likely to be excited about learning and actually retain knowledge if they’re able to guide it themselves. You can take several weeks and focus on the Egyptians if your kid is passionate about mummies. You can have “Shark Week” if your kid is going through a shark phase and let them explore every documentary, book, and aquarium you can find. I went through several self-guided learning phases like this growing up. Apart from my actual schoolwork, I had a dinosaur phase, a Titanic phase, a marine biology phase, and an ancient China phase. I researched, explored, and memorized facts about these topics on my own because I was genuinely interested in these subjects. What if that was the curriculum? What if us parents and teachers could harness that youthful curiosity and simply facilitate and serve as a guide? What if there were no lectures and no homework assignments? What if there was time built into the school day for exploring passions and cultivating hobbies? I think we’d all want to go back to school.
Unschooling is adaptable for every child. Because it isn’t structured into grade levels, the students are able to advance at the pace that feels right to them. Structure is optional – more structure for the students that need it and less for those that thrive on the go. No desks are required if the student can’t sit still. We’re all different types of learners, and unschooling can facilitate all of them individually. Some are audio learners, who benefit from listening to assignments while doing something else with their hands. I know I’m a visual learner, and needed to be able to see the words on the page in order to absorb them, otherwise I’d be in danger of falling asleep! There is no right or wrong method of learning, so do what works for your child.
You don’t have to stay at home. I know many unschoolers who travel almost full-time because their kids aren’t attached to a school system. Some of these are traveling musicians, (check out The Hollands and the Schlereth family!) while others are just explorers who can work remotely if required. There’s no reason not to camp at state parks or visit national monuments in the middle of the week. I even know of one unschooling family who hiked the entire Appalachian trail together! In addition to hiking, their school consisted of leaning the native plants and wildlife, learning to budget and prepare, and reciting the times tables aloud.
Unschooling is legal. Yes, it’s a bit unconventional, but it’s a legal and effective education. Every state has individual laws on the requirements of attendance and record-keeping, but for the most part these laws are very adaptable for the unschooler. Simply keeping a notebook or digital record and portfolio of work completed is generally acceptable for state requirements. Testing is optional, at least in Missouri where I am. It can be good to get kids used to testing, but tests aren’t really necessary when the child is guiding the learning. The parents will know when the child grasps a certain concept, and learning goes on once those concepts are understood. There’s simply no need for memorization and regurgitation. My family did this growing up. I didn’t do any formal memorizing and testing until college…and of course I’ve already forgotten a lot of the material I was quizzed on.
What’s crucial is the desire to learn. And the entire unschooling philosophy hangs on that objective: find, nourish, and protect a child’s desire to learn. You can jointly experiment with how, as long as the child wants to, but when the child loses interest and you have to struggle to get any attention and focus, the effort needed to get a result is several orders of magnitude greater, and it’s not clear that the results stick. Worse, the process seems to poison the well, and kids are turned off to other material even before you get to it, because it’s being forced on them.
-Patrick, The Unschooling Handbook
Unschooling fosters a lifelong love of learning. When I was in school I didn’t always enjoy reading the books I was assigned. My love of reading is far more evident now as an adult, when I can pick books from the library shelves myself and read them at my own pace in my own time. I choose topics that excite me already or topics that I’d like to learn more about. I’m able to read several books at once, skim parts that are sluggish, chew over the meaty parts for a long time, and start more books than I finish without repercussions. This freedom is what makes reading enjoyable for me. I want my kids to know the same freedom and joy of reading that I do now. This principle doesn’t just apply to books, of course. But we probably all know the wonderful feeling of deep-seeded curiosity. We know the excitement of solving problems ourselves and finding answers to questions we come up with. Why should only adults get to learn this way? My goal is to start my children off like this from the start. I don’t push Malachi to memorize or learn certain things. But he does because he’s genuinely interested.
We’re already doing it. Learning takes place everyday at my house, and it probably does at yours too! Malachi is not yet preschool age, but he is naturally bright and curious, like most kids. Without us really “trying,” Malachi has already learned the alphabet and the sounds the letters make. He knows how to count, is practicing simple math and sounding out words. I’m not saying this to brag, but to emphasize that children love to learn. All we do is follow his lead and surround him with books and resources. We really can’t take any credit. The times I do try to “make” him learn, he shuts down and refuses to go along with it. When he’s in the mood, he’ll suggest a game or he’ll ask a question. Most of his learning already has been on his timetable, not mine. It can be demanding. Questions come up most often when I’m not in the mood to answer them. But it’s not about me.
It doesn’t mean you’re disorganized. I love order and I’m generally an organized person. This “free-range” approach to teaching is still up my alley though! We don’t have a whole lot of structure yet since my kids are barely even preschool age, but we do have a little bit of a schedule. We have park days and library days. We have play dates and music practice. We have grocery days and weekly Bible study. It’s not set in stone, but it’s not mayhem either.
Socialization is real-world. Whenever people find out I was homeschooled, they usually react with something like “I couldn’t tell. You’re so well socialized!” The myth that homeschoolers and unschoolers are under-socialized is just that – a myth. There are lots of opportunities at church, play groups, and co-ops for quality relationships and real-world socialization. By real-world I mean socialization with people of all ages and not just friends who are the same year in school. I think having a wider and more diverse social sphere is actually one of the benefits of unschooling. Yes, schools are social places, but they are an unnaturally organized and divided kind of social that doesn’t exist outside of the classroom. The world is full of many different types of people, and children are actually more likely to experience them outside of the school district and grade they’ve been assigned.
Of course this post needs a disclaimer. I’m aware of the fact that unschooling isn’t for everyone. I know there’s many different types of children and different types of learners out there. I also know there’s parents who might love the idea but are unable to provide such an education. I get it completely. Right now unschooling is my “Plan A” for my kids. But I’m definitely not too set on it to change my mind it it doesn’t work for us or for them. Being realistic about what works and what doesn’t is probably the most important thing for any unschooling family. I plan on being real about it. I plan on being honest with myself and my kiddos. I plan on being flexible if it simply doesn’t work for us.
But this is why I’m excited about learning with my kids. Yes, I’ll be right there with them, learning alongside them! We’ll see where this journey takes us.