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A Beginner’s Guide to Unschooling

There are many different homeschooling options and learning styles. Unschooling is an exciting homeschooling style that has been gaining in popularity.

What is unschooling?

Unschooling is one method or philosophy of homeschooling your children.

It is one of the most unique approaches to homeschooling. Basically, unschooling is child led learning facilitated by parents.

It is a child’s personal journey of discovering themselves and the world around them. It fosters rather than stunts natural curiosity and inspires a love of learning that will last a life time.

A young child learns by following their interest in airplanes and flight.  The unschooled child imagines himself as a pilot as he plays with a toy airplane.  He wants to learn more so he reads books on the topic of his interest.

The word “unschooling” was coined by the American educator John Holt in the 1970’s. In his book Teach Your Own he said: “I define unschooling as allowing as much freedom to learn in the world as their parents can comfortably bear”.

Unschooling is Similar to a Smorgasbord

To understand unschooling better some have used the simile of a smorgasbord.

Visualize a sumptuous spread. In front of it stands a wide eyed child with exciting choices. He is vibrating with excitement. Not only can he choose which of the many foods he will pile on his plate but also how much.

Foods that are not liked are discarded. He is having fun. Now most likely he will choose cheesecake over broccoli or a hamburger over a steak.

Taking it back to unschooling, it can be likened to choosing gaming over reading, going to the museum or playing in the mud over filling out worksheets.

But not to worry, for as Pam Sorooshian said in her book How to Unschool: “a passion for playing in the dirt at six can become a passion for protecting the natural environment at 16 and a career as forest ranger as an adult“.

Going back to our analogy let us take a look at a traditionally schooled educated child. He has his plate filled for him and he has to eat it whether he wants to or not.

Why Choose to Unschool Your Child

By choosing to unschool your child you are following the path of nature. Nature determines when a child starts to walk, speak and dress themselves etc.

Learning cannot be rushed. There is no expiry date. Each child learns at their own pace.

Babies are born ready to learn. No one teaches them how to learn a complicated language, motor skills, problem solving skills, cause and effect, social interactions etc. They do this naturally.

Children want to learn. Curiosity drives them. They watch, they listen, they touch, they explore. They have a tremendous capacity to learn the world around them. Parents provide for them a safe environment, rich with stimulations and opportunities.

Why then would we interrupt this natural process and place them in schools which are artificially dictated places of learning?

John Holt in his book How Children Fail states:

“the idea of special learning places where nothing but learning happens no longer seems to me to make sense at all. The proper place and best place for children to learn whatever they need or want to know is the place where until very recently almost all children learned it – in the world itself, in the mainstream of adult life”.

Benefits of Unschooling

Here are 4 advantages to unschooling:

  1. children can learn at their own pace
  2. children are motivated to learn
  3. children will become enthusiastic life long learners
  4. children will regain the confidence to explore the unknown

Children Can Learn At Their Own Pace

One of the benefits of unschooling is that children can learn at their own pace.

Curiosity makes children want to learn and this process naturally continues throughout their life.

Learning doesn’t always follow the expected time frame.

For example, a child’s nature determines when they are ready to read. If a child is surrounded by a family of readers then they will naturally pick this up. Some maybe as late as ten or twelve years of age.

How can a parent monitor this? Observe. By observation you might see them reading texts on board / computer games, the TV guide or menus.

Children Are Motivated To Learn

When a child is allowed to explore new knowledge at their own pace, things that they find useful and relevant, then you are creating a motivated child.

According to Stella Vosniadou, a Professor in the School of Education, in her book “How Children Learn“:

“Motivated learners are easy to recognize because they have a passion for achieving their goals and are ready to expend a great deal of effort. They also show considerable determination and persistence. This influences the amount and quality of what is learned.”

Children Will Develop Into A Life Long Learner

Let me tell you about my own daughter.

She has turned out to be a lifer. Learning never ends with her. On her own she has followed her curiosity to a wide variety of momentary passions. She has learned:

  • morse code
  • the art of speed reading
  • shorthand
  • jewelry making (hemp, bead and wire)
  • wood working (making her cabinets and closets)
  • floor installation
  • card tricks
  • photography (going to college for this)
  • sign language (night classes and college)
  • rubber stamping (both photopolymer for custom made stamps and vulcanizer for rubber art stamps which she turned into a temporary business)
  • sewing (the workings of a sewing machine and fabric designers)
  • scrapbooking
  • card making
  • writing and directing plays (which were performed numerous times in front of large audiences)
  • massage therapy (college)
  • accounting (self taught from books)
  • nutritional consultant (got a degree through correspondence)
  • iridology (correspondence)
  • artisan bread making (online course)
  • dancing (tap, jazz, hip hop, ballet, lyrical, ball room, cha cha, lindy hop and merengue) (via teacher’s college, videos and dance classes)
  • mental math (including using the Japanese soroban) life long passion
  • study of flight (an online course on how an airplane is built and flies)
  • blogging (content creator – takes online classes with successful and well known Holly Homer)
  • search engine optimization (following online experts Neil Patel and Holly Homer)
  • graphic design (online video courses)
  • data analyst (self taught during employment – grandfather always said: say yes to any job, just learn as you go)
  • dog breeding (her grandfather built her a 12 X 12 doghouse with bunk beds and a porch)
  • foraging (community classes & books)
  • travelling the world (back-packing and living with the locals)

There might be more. I might have lost track.

Children will Blossom Into Confident Explorers of the Unknown

By using the unschooling method curiosity is fuelled rather than squashed. Curiosity leads to learning.

John Holt made a good point when he said:

“If we continually try to force a child to do what he is afraid to do he will become more timid and will use his brains and energy not to explore the unknown but to find ways to avoid the pressures we put on him”.

How Children Learn

Judy Amall summed up the benefits of unschooling well when she said:

“The goal of unschooling is not education. It is to help a child be who she is and blossom into who she will become. Education is a side effect”.

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How to Start Unschooling

You as a loving parent are the one most invested in your child’s wellbeing and education. The best help you can give your child is to model your joy of learning. Through osmosis your own actions will transfer invaluable qualities such as honesty, consideration, kindness and responsibility.

Here are some ideas to get started with life rather than assignments:

  • Observe your child. Note what their interests or needs are at any given time.
  • Talk to them about their natural curiosities which you have observed. And then provide them with resources, information and experiences that can help them explore further and deeper.
  • Answer their questions. Remember, if a child’s own self worth is intact they will not hesitate to ask questions.
  • Provide opportunities to learn. Take them to museums, libraries, parks, concerts, sporting events, camping, zoos, science centres, field trips.
  • Allow them to play.
  • Provide them with books, maps, videos, board games, TV, musical instruments, cameras, computer and video games.
  • Give them chores as they provide life skills.
  • Travel. It opens their eyes to the world culture and stimulates curiosities.
  • Provide mentors, elective classes and social interactions.

But remember don’t teach unless the child’s own interests / curiosities lead them. Things will not be remembered or make sense to them unless there is a need or an interest. Life is their teacher.

How to Document Unschooling for your Portfolio

Unschooling does not mean that you cannot have some form of organization or documentation.

Record keeping might be important depending on your local laws. Perhaps you are required to submit a learning plan at the beginning of a school year and possibly a portfolio of things learned at the end of the school year.

Here are some ideas:

  • When there is a curiosity jot it down. Perhaps you can make a planner with the child’s name on it and have the child write down what they want to learn that week. When they are bored they can refer back to the list of questions they wanted answered.
  • Have a calendar and record all the upcoming events that are of interest such as fairs, book clubs, homeschoolers group activities etc.
  • Have the child choose the books of the week you want to read out loud together (remember if no one likes it, toss it).

By doing it this way, you will have a record of what is learned.

Here is a great example of someone who has mastered scheduling and planning their unschooling activities in a fun and motivational way.

Unschooling vs Homeschooling

Once a parent decides to homeschool their child they can choose one of the many philosophies or approaches under the umbrella of homeschooling. Unschooling is one such choice.

Many of the styles of homeschooling leave the control of education in the hands of the parent. The parent acts like a teacher, planning, directing and guiding what to study and when. The parent gives out homework and marks the assignments.

On the other hand, parents who choose to unschool their child entrust the child to determine when and what they want to learn. Parents provide the opportunities and the resources.

Learning takes place within the opportunities given by each day. This can include common activities such as grocery shopping, gardening or fixing a car.

Homeschooling has been around since the 1970’s when John Holt examined our formal educational system and found it wanting and unnatural. The unschooling style of homeschooling has only recently gained ground.

Unschooling Blogs

If you choose to unschool, following some good unschooling blogs can be helpful. It can be inspiring and give you some fun ideas.

Here are some of my favourite unschooling blogs to get you started:

  1. Happiness is Here

    I’ve been following this blog for years now. There’s a wealth of information and first hand experience from an Australian unschooling family with 4 girls. If you’re on Instagram, I also recommend following her Instagram page.
  2. Living Joyfully

    A great resource for any family wishing to unschool.

Unschooling books

Here are some books about unschooling that unschooling parents of a Facebook group have recommended as their favourites:

  • Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom by Kerry McDonald

    Kerry McDonald, the author has a masters degree in education from Harvard University and is a board member at the Alliance for self-directed education. She is also a mother who homeschooled her children. She was inspired to write this wonderful book that gives the reader a history of unschooling, how to implement unschooling and positive results from real life families.
  • Living Joyfully with Unschooling Box Set by Pam Laricchia

    Pam Laricchia has more than a dozen years of unschooling experience. She gives inspiration in her three books:
    1. Free to Learn. Five ideas for a Joyful Unschooling Life
    2. Free to Live. How to Create a Thriving Unschooling Home
    3. Live through the Lens of Unschooling: A Living Joyfully Companion
  • Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything by Laura Grace Weldon

    Laura Grace Weldon is a longtime columnist with “Home Education Magazine”. She homeschooled her four children and has used her unique experience to inspire homeschoolers, especially unschooling families, with her scholarly intelligence, wit and grace. She provides invaluable references, ideas and resources to help unschoolers to keep going. Many unschooling parents have described this book to be one of their favorites.
  • Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play will Make Our Children Happier, More Self Reliant and Better Students for Life: by Peter Gray

    Peter Gray is a research professor in the Department of Psychology at Boston College. His easy to read book is good for those wanting to learn the reasons why to unschool. He discussed the damaging effects of compulsory schooling to the playful instincts of our children based on a scientific foundation.
  • The Unschooling Handbook : How to Use the Whole World As Your Child’s Classroom by Mary Griffith

    Mary Griffith is a veteran homeschooler. Unschooling is movement that is growing. This book is a well organized guide for those unfamiliar with this philosophy. It helps parents become acquainted with what to expect. It is enriched by quotes from both parents and kids.
  • Homeschooling Our Children Unschooling Ourselves by Alison McKee

    Alison McKee has written many articles on homeschooling, given interviews for newspaper, radio and TV. Made a presentation at the University of Wisconsin and is an advisor at Homeschooling.ca. She is a community liaison for H.O.M.E., a support group she began. Her book is easy to read. She tells her story, feelings and results of unschooling her children for 23 years. They are now graduates from college. She gives insight on how children learn, how unschooling works and gives parents reassurance that unschooling works.
  • Learning All The Time by John Holt

    John Holt (1923-1985) was an educator and influential American author of numerous books. He showed how children learn all the time. How parents can support them to learn to read, write, county without being taught. He highlighted how children can be harmed by exposure to institutional schools. He provided confidence in the parent and the child to produce a child that will love learning.