What is unschooling? Completely self-directed, children are given the space to learn naturally. Learning without textbooks, schedules, tests, or curriculum.
Unschooling is fully allowing children to direct their own learning and trusting that they will learn all that they need to know. From the moment of conception human beings naturally learn and grow without any adult interference. For example, adults do not teach infants to communicate by crying, infants simply know when to cry and how. They go from crawling to walking to their first words, naturally learning through experiencing life.
Of course, there are toys and tools advertised to “teach” these skills but, human beings were designed to learn simply by living.
If we don’t sit children down and teach them, how will they learn? Well, that’s simple. We live and learn alongside them. This looks like play for younger children.
When I think about traditional education, I reminisce on my own experiences in school. I had a deep love for books and an active imagination. I also remember the first time I began to doubt myself when I received my first failing mark in first or second grade.
One memory was a close relative questioning my readiness or intellect at a time I had just finished auditioning for a local performing arts school with one small but life-impacting “are you sure you are smart enough to get in that school?”
At age ten, I then began to wonder if she was right. Was I smart enough? Was I enough? Well, the performing arts school accepted me. My parents decided I should attend the new charter school instead. There, I would be labeled as an honor student and destined to follow a path set before me with no regard to what interests me, all in the name of excellence.
Looking back I can think of many moments where my own interests were not valued, maybe even shunned and pushed down to fit into an idea that children must be disciplined, uniformed, and intellectually competitive according to predetermined standards. Not wild and free. Discouraged to think their own thoughts aloud. Forbidden to express themselves through appearance by way of required uniforms. Not free to spend more time on one subject over the other or to question the relevance of one topic over another.
In my senior year of high school, I wrote a paper on racial biases in standardized testing. Want to measure someone’s level of intelligence and probability of success? Give them a test. Want to make it “fair”? Give everyone the same test, despite their individual experiences, interests, and truths. Well, that just doesn’t sit right with me. Or the other families in the unschooling community. As a scholar, I made the dean’s list regularly and always maintained a high G.P.A. It was the expectation. I memorized information long enough to pass the exam.
Due to the worldwide pandemic of 2020, parents are rethinking what true learning looks like. Over the last ten months, I have read the fears and concerns of so many parents and teachers, especially of preschool-age children. “What if they fall behind?” “How will they learn if they are not in school and with degree-holding teachers?”
This post contains affiliate links, which means I make a small commission at no extra cost to you. See my full disclosure here.
I think it is safe to assume much of the concern is in regard to socialization, math, science, and literacy. For some reason, these subjects have become areas in which we now only believe can happen in a traditional classroom and are the only subjects that constitute education. This could not be furthest from the truth.
Ask any homeschool parent and they will ensure you that their kids are socialized, maybe even more than children in traditional classrooms. I don’t know about you but sitting in a room full of 20+ other children the same age as me and only allowed to talk to them when given special permission, is not socialization; at least not in any way representative of the real world with people of all ages, backgrounds, etc. You get my point. The beauty in unschooling is that children are actually out in the world and have the opportunity to socialize when in the grocery store, the library, park, post office, etc.
They are learning arithmetic when they are in the kitchen cooking with you, building with blocks, and when exercising self-control after mom said they can have 3 cookies but they see a jar of 10. If you know me personally you know that I love books and believe if we don’t do anything else, the gift of literacy is the best “academic” gift we can give our children. Reading books and stories daily will “teach” them to read, just as conversation “taught” language. All of this applies to older children as well.
Benjamin Franklin said it best, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”
Every human being naturally wants to learn. It is why small children ask us one million questions a day, including that screeching “but why” in response to our requests. It is why they will jump off the top of the playset or walk up the slide in the “wrong” direction. They want to find out what happens if they do it. They want to learn. The best way to learn is through their play and risk-taking. We are simply there to learn with them and provide support based on their interest.
Unschooling is freedom from the oppressive agendas of the mainstream education system. Freedom from a system that tells you how to dress, how to behave, what to learn, what to think, when you can come and go, and who you should be. Akilah Richards, the founder of the Raising Free People network, discusses “unschooling as liberation and healing work” in her book and podcast.
I was once paddled for not completing a homework assignment. My entire 5th-grade class had to squat with our arms held out reading a paper because another student in the class was misbehaving. I spent a day in in-house suspension because my belt was the wrong color. And of course, I received grades to judge my intellect (performance); despite my effort. Unschooling is liberation.
Difference between homeschooling and unschooling
If not careful, we can be so loyal to societal worldviews of what education is, that we might try to replicate it in our home. Believe me, I definitely had to do some healing work and deschooling of my schoolish mentality. Deschooling, in my opinion, is an ongoing process. Bringing our children home does not always free them of schoolish ways.
To live out unschooling, we must truly step back and allow room for self-directed learning. Some refer to this as “natural learning” or “life learning”. Unschooling will look different in each family. I do not consider our family to be radical unschoolers. I believe that to truly create an environment that nurtures and supports the interest and natural gifts of the child, we must have faith in the process.
5 simple tips to start unschooling
- Spend a good amount of time deschooling and letting go of schoolishness (usually 1 month per year in school). This simply means allowing time for your child to adjust to being home and taking a break from school-like lessons.
- Ask what your child would like to learn about or investigate.
- Provide a rich environment that honors diversity and not only brings the world to the child but the child to the world.
- Trust in the process and that what they need to know, they’ll learn naturally.
- Don’t worry how fast or slow they are learning. Try to let go of the traditional timeline and expectations held in conventional classrooms.
Is it scary? Heck yeah. Learning can only take place in a classroom with trained educators. Learning is something you have to do and if there is too much fun and playing; how could children possibly be learning?
Trust me, if we watch long enough we will see the learning. I hope that you will stick around a little longer. I promise, there’s some fruit here.
What is your definition of unschooling? Is this lifestyle of homeschooling practical for you and your family? Was your experience in conventional school positive? So, I’d love to hear more. Share with me in the comments!