Unschooling Basics: Understanding What Unschooling Really Is
“Before I talk about what I think unschooling is, I must talk about what it isn’t. Unschooling isn’t a recipe, and therefore it can’t be explained in recipe terms. It is impossible to give unschooling directions for people to follow so that it can be tried for a week or so to see if it works. Unschooling isn’t a method, it is a way of looking at children and at life. It is based on trust that parents and children will find the paths that work best for them – without depending on educational institutions, publishing companies, or experts to tell them what to do.” -Earl Stevens on The Natural Child Project
Unschooling is one of those words that doesn’t do justice to what it needs to describe. Saying I unschool my kids leaves people confused and often feeling like its a negative thing. Many people think, based on that name, that these parents and kids do nothing at all. For these reasons some people don’t like to use the word unschooling, and say self-directed learning, or life learning. For the purpose of finding information and connecting with others, though, unschooling is the best name. I really like the term life learning since if you break it down, that’s really what it is. Unschoolers live and learn through everyday life experiences. Unschoolers live and learn as though school does not exist.
How and Why Unschooling Works
Desire. Unschooling works because people are born wanting to learn. Just as a baby naturally learns to eat, crawl, walk, and talk, children will grow up and continue wanting to learn. That’s not to say they don’t need help. Unschooling parents use many different resources to help their kids learn what they want and need to know. They show them new things and bring them places that they might not encounter otherwise. Parents are there when they learn to walk, to help, make sure they don’t get hurt, and offer consolation when they do. In the same way, unschooling parents are there for help, support, to offer ideas, and to give a shoulder to lean on when needed. For a child who wants help learning to read, a parent can do a lot more than a curriculum, although some kids may enjoy more structured work sometimes. Reading books together, playing online games, playing board games, playing video games, cooking and using a recipe, reading signs outside or at the store – these are all times where reading and words are used naturally. There are SO many fun and enjoyable ways to learn.
Many people think that children will never just want to read without prodding from their parents but this is far from true. Have you ever heard of a baby who doesn’t want to learn to walk? They don’t have to be forced. They fall and they get right back up and try again. Yes, some children do things slower or faster than others, but unless there is a deeper problem, every child learns to walk. The same goes for anything that a person has the desire to learn.
Where does desire come from?
Interest. The second key point to how unschooling works is interest. If you don’t find something interesting then why would you want to learn about it? Talking and walking are basic skills that make life easier. Everyone needs to know how to communicate and get around. Being able to read and use simple math are also pretty basic life skills that you will eventually need. The most common question for unschoolers however is “how do you learn math and reading?” How can you not learn math and reading as a person in this society? The reason many kids have problems reading in school is not because they have a learning disability or aren’t as smart as others, it’s because they have lost interest and therefor the desire to learn. Kids begin to dislike learning because they are forced to learn things that don’t spark their interests in school. Other things like moving too fast or slow has a big effect on learning, also. Every child is different and needs to learn in different ways. Mainstream schools just can’t account for that. So interest is a big deal, and not loosing the interest, drive, or love of learning is a really big deal. Once learning becomes a chore, kids loose their natural drive and it can take a lot to get it back. But if kids never realize that learning can be a chore then they learn reading (for example) by naturally appreciating words and letters in life. Around three years of age a lot of kids even start to ask their parents what things say. This is a perfect time to encourage their curiousity.
Parents’ Job. Unschooling does not mean that kids or parents do not interact or that kids get to do whatever they want. Many unschooling households are democratic; everyone in the family states what they want or need and the family works together to get everyone as close to their goals as possible. Kids learn to respect their own feelings and how to balance their desires with that of others to make sure everyone is happy. In order to parent in this way many parents need to drastically change the way they think about life and about parenting. Most parents were brought up hearing “because I said so, end of conversation” and that is the complete opposite of unschooling. Parents end up doing a lot of work, reading, studying, finding neat things to do with their kids, and really unschooling themselves.
I like to explain the role of parents in unschooling like an extension of Attachment Parenting (more about that in my other blog here). Just as you would listen to the cues of your baby, you continue to study your older children’s needs and desires and go from there. Like attachment parenting, unschooling critics say that it’s the easy way out, giving in to kids every whim, letting them play all day instead of disciplining. In reality though it’s the opposite of that. True that many unschooling parents don’t use discipline in the traditional sense, but what we do is in no way easy and generally is more time and energy consuming than mainstream parenting. If a child for instance is “having a tantrum,” an unschooling parent would figure out the source of the problem, what is really wrong and help the child figure out a solution to feel better. Sending the child to time out or threatening punishment for being unable to stop crying doesn’t solve the problem. It teaches the child that their needs and feeling are not important. Unschooling parents want their children to keep the sense of importance (seen by many as brattiness that needs to be driven out) that they are born with. We don’t want our children to fear us or see us as authority figures. We don’t want them to just do anything anyone tells them. We want them to think for themselves. We want them to see us as partners who love and respect them.
In my house the only real rule is to be nice. To people, our house, our stuff. Everything else is negotiable. I’m always talking, listening, figuring stuff out so that everyone is content. Since we don’t sweat the small stuff my kids listen to me when there is something important and since they learn from example they respect others as my husband and I respect them.
When it comes to school subjects (not all unschoolers keep track of learning as subjects but for the sake of explaining how it works), it’s our job as unschooling parents to find resources to help our kids explore their interests and find new ones – basically to show them the world as much as possible. With a little creativity, especially with the help of the internet, it is easy to find many different ways to learn – ones that jive with any learning style and appeal to your child’s needs.
Kids’ Job. A kids job is to be happy. That’s really it because when people are content the rest will happen naturally. A happy child will play, explore, and learn all day every day doing everything from playing in puddles, to reading, to playing video games.
For my husband and I, the biggest reason we want to unschool is so our kids will be happy – not just now, but as they grow up and as adults too. We feel like in our society too much weight is placed on things you have to do because it’s “just how it’s done” with no thinking outside the box. Just as we don’t believe that school is the only way to get an education, we also scoff at the idea that once you grow up you have to “act like an adult” and work at a job you hate from 9-5. There are so many options out there for people who know how to follow their bliss and that is something not taught in school. This article, The Cult of Unhappy goes more in-depth on the subject.
I remember when I was first introduced to this alternative idea. My friend gave me a book called “The Unschooling Handbook: How to Use the Whole World as your Child’s Classroom” and told me that Kaya was just too happy, free, and imaginative to go to school. She didn’t want him to loose his spark. In a few weeks we un-enrolled him in preschool and that was that! I look at him now and I do still see that spark. I’m not saying that schooled kids are not smart and kind. I don’t want this to be one of those “everything I’m doing is more awesome” posts, but as a proud mama, I cant believe how smart and kind he is. He lives by his own rules, when he wants to do something he figures out how, and he doesn’t care if he wants to do something that isn’t “normal” for eleven year old boys like paint his nails or play Barbies. He does what makes him happy and when I look at him I know he will grow up to be an amazing adult.
- By searching Unschooling or Homeschooling in your area you may very likely find groups that meet locally for support. There’s a long list here.
- There are also international Unschooling groups of many kinds online. If you need support starting out or have specific questions, international groups are a great place to start.
- Unschooling and alternative schooling conferences are popping up all over. Look for one near you!
- Attachment/alternative parenting groups like the Holistic Moms Network or La Leche League are great for parents with young children who are looking for others with similar values. If there aren’t any, start your own!
Lots of Links
Leo Babauta -The Beginner’s Guide to Unschooling
Joyce Fetteroll – Joyfully Rejoycing
Alfie Kohn – Alfie Kohn is actually pro-school but speaks for school reform. His study of child behavior and learning coincides with Unschooling
John Taylor Gatto – Former New York City school teacher of 30 years who now supports Unschooling
Grace Llewelyn – Teenage Liberation Handbook
Dayna Martin – The Sparkling Martins
Natural Child Project – My favorite website for all things Attachment Parenting and Unschooling. Great for parents of young kids.
Ways to Keep Learning All the Time
- Pinterest. One of my favorite places to find and organize ideas is Pinterest. When my kids are looking for something new or a specific idea, we look there and I keep a board of fun ideas and activities for whenever we need something to do.
- Khan Academy. Have you seen this website?! Seriously anything you want to know for free! There are videos, exercises and so much more on any subject you can think of.
- Wikipedia. Always a good familiar standby for quick research.
- Games. From Minecraft to Monopoly there is reading and math all over. Reading the cards and working with play money in monopoly is great practice and super fun. My kids love Minecraft and it’s pixelated design makes math skills a good tool for building. You can also write back and forth with friends in the chat box and I know lots of kids who have learned to read and write with this game and others.
- The Library. Of course the library is an awesome resource. We go every couple weeks and my kids pick out whatever books they want. I look for books on anything we’ve been thinking about. I also pick a few random subjects that look interesting and put them out at home. Often this generates interest that no one knew they had!
- Sitting down to a meal with the family. Just talking with your kids about what happened that day can make for interesting and unplanned educational conversation.
- Watching TV. Yep. Because you never know what your child’s next passion will be or how they will find it. Maybe delving into Japanese culture after watching Hayao Miyazaki’s film Spirited Away; oceanography after Finding Nemo; an interest in cooking after Iron Chef America and Cupcake Wars. And of course there’s an obvious mass of amazing documentaries and non-fiction television available. The possibilities are endless.
- Sandra Dodd’s Math Page
- Sandra Dodd’s Reading Page
Socialization. This is one of those hot button topics that home/unschoolers get all the time. It’s also one of the silliest. We are out in the world everyday interacting with all different kinds and ages of people. I’d say homeschoolers are a lot more socialized than most school kids in fact.
The Internet makes for so many opportunities to make friends that weren’t possible before. There are tons of online groups for any subject and with the good old Internet you can also easily find others near you that have similar interests or are unschooling. Unschooling has been growing in numbers throughout the years and most areas have active groups that meet for regular activities. Be sure to check out all homeschool groups, not just unschooling ones. If not, follow your bliss (or your child’s) and meet people doing what you love!