What Is Unschooling?

What Is Unschooling?

Whenever I mention unschooling people ask me how it is different from regular homeschooling. It occurred to me I’d never written a ‘what is unschooling’ post before. So here we are!

Unschooling is…

A life without school. Pretty simply unschooling means not sending your kids to school, and not creating a school-at-home environment either. Unschooling is a complete rejection of the concept of traditional schooling.

Not equating education with curriculum. Unschoolers don’t use a curriculum. Education is not a step by step linear process, and a one-size-fits-all curriculum is not what unschooling is about. Children learn whatever they are interested in! They’re also free to not learn about things they have no interest in.

What Is Unschooling?

Letting children control their own education. One of the most controversial points of unschooling is that children themselves are the ones in charge of their own education. Most people think that kids are not capable of this. That we must put them in schools and tell them what they need to know. Unschoolers believe that children should be the ones leading the way in their own education and that they are very capable of doing this. We believe it is their right to be able to choose what interests them and how they will learn about it. Learning is always consensual. There is never any forced learning!

Trusting children will learn all they need to know. We believe that children will learn all that they need to know for their own life. We trust that children will learn when they are ready and interested, even if that means on a different timeline to schooled children. We don’t worry if they’re not interested in learning to read at age 5 for example. Eventually, when they are motivated and it is important to them, they will want to learn to read, and they will most likely teach themselves.

Often extended to other areas of life. When you start unschooling and you start to trust children more and more, don’t be surprised if this trust seeps into other areas of your life too. When you see how truly capable kids are, you are given a new perspective. You know that they deserve to be respected and given the opportunity to make their own choices. It’s common for unschoolers to parent respectfully, not using punishments and rewards. Unschooled kids might be able to pick their own bedtime, choose what and when they eat, choose their own clothes, etc.

Prioritising Relationships. Unschoolers value family and relationships over the demands of society. Having ample time together, deepening connections, and spending their childhood with them are equally important parts of this journey as the educational aspect. Unschooling is a lifestyle choice.

What Is Unschooling?

Learning from life. Many sources and many people. Unschoolers learn from the world around them! Parents provide lots of opportunities and resources for kids to learn in a hands on and real world way. We give them many many experiences so that they have a chance to find what interests them. We support and guide them with whatever they need to do. We involve others in the community, extended family members, and even take classes sometimes, learning from lots of different inspiring people.

What Is Unschooling?

Amazing. The thing I love most about unschooling is the freedom. We are not tied to school schedules. We can follow our own pace of life and really truly get to know each other and enjoy each others company. Children can spend their childhood playing, as they should be able to do.

Unschooling is not…

Unparenting. When people first hear of unschooling they might think it sounds like parents doing not much at all and leaving the kids to ‘run amok’. Not so! Parents are always there helping, guiding, listening, and involved. There are also boundaries and limits, it’s just that they are not enforced in an authoritarian manner. We work as a team! Unschooling parents are incredibly involved and proactive. Because we’re not relying on a set curriculum we really have to be present and attentive, picking up on what our children are learning and how best to support them with that.

Compatible with school. Generally, unschooling is not compatible with school, being that the name itself means the opposite of school! You can’t unschool on the weekends for example, just as if you work you aren’t unemployed on the weekends. You can support natural learning on the weekends! And that’s fabulous and I hope lots of parents are doing that! But I wouldn’t call it unschooling.

Only for some subjects. You also can’t really teach some subjects like Literacy and Maths in a traditional matter, and then unschool the rest. I mean you can obviously, but that’s not representative of what unschooling is about. Unschoolers trust that their children will learn everything they need to, this includes all subjects. If you teach them some and then let them learn others at their own pace then you risk sending the message that you don’t really trust them and the learning process. This obviously doesn’t align with the idea of unschooling. We also don’t value one subject or skill more highly than another. Whatever a child chooses to pursue is important.

What Is Unschooling?

Standardised tests. If a child learns something and no one is there to administer a standardised test, did it really happen? Unschoolers would say yes! School gives the impression that no, it didn’t. School requires children to prove their learning (or memorisation at least) before they are allowed to move on the further learning. Unschoolers don’t need tests to know that children are learning. They are closely involved so they see a lot of it, and they trust children to learn what they need. We don’t learn in order to meet the requirements of other people. There is no jumping through hoops or asking our children to prove their learning constantly. We are even happy for them to keep some of their learning private if they wish.

Socially isolating. All the unschooled kids I know have lots of friends! We see them all the time and there are SO many events on for home educated kids in our area. We could attend something every day if we wanted to. Unschooled kids socialise just fine.

I hope that gives you an understanding of what Unschooling is! It’s not a club with exclusive rules or anything and no one’s trying to make people fit the requirements to join (obviously, we don’t force people, ha!), but those are the general ideas that people who unschool follow. And that’s what we do! It’s fabulous, and freeing, and amazing!

If you’d like to read more about unschooling, you can find my favourite resources here.

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51 thoughts on “What Is Unschooling?

  1. Agree completely with this description. Love the emphasis you’ve included on family connection and the fact that it’s not unparenting!

    Curious to know, did you always start out with the intention of unschooling, or like me, discover it on the way to homeschooling?

    Love the B&W image of your girls-just beautiful.

    • Hi Clare! No, I actually didn’t start out with that intention. I did like the idea of natural learning and planned to let them learn through play for much longer than they would have at school. But as I saw how much they learned before I even started to ‘do’ anything I really couldn’t see there was any need to change things. And here we are!

  2. We have been unschooling for 5 years, from the start, sans a week as a newbie homeschooler who thought school had to be done at home. That sucked. We stopped. Now, my oldest is a senior and in charge of her education. She is taking a “gap” ywar next year to learn more about herself. My youngestis 8.5 and just learning how to read. It is all good. Only downside is we now live in NC which requires a yearly standardized test. 🙁 no way around it.

    • I have found the standardized tests are actually a great way to see just how and what the kids really are learning. And it proves that yes they are learning even if I have nothing to show for it. They do, and that is what actually matters anyway. I am from Alberta and we dont have to do the standardized tests but i choose to. They are skills tests though and not curriculum based. I have hraduated three so far. 2 more to go.

  3. This is such a great post. It explains what unschooling is clearly. I have just subscribed to your blog and look forward to reading future posts. I have just written a book called, “7 Steps To Beginning Your Unschooling Journey” in which I also try to explain what unschooling is and what core values are as unschooling parents. There are so many misconceptions about us unschooling families. Thank you for tackling the one about it not being “Unparenting”.

  4. Your article is very enlightening. I have one question. Do you put out prompts and play inspiration. Do you do any prompting from when you see a beginning interest, or do you wait for the kids to come to you asking for help.

    • Hi Jess!
      Yes I often put some stuff out in the morning for them to find. Mainly because then I get more sleep haha. But I don’t like having too many toys and things out so it’s usually just something we have packed away and I’ll get it out for a day. Or set up some art materials or something. With their interests I might just ask opened ended questions to encourage them to think about things but not try to direct them and let them come up with what they would like to explore further themselves. And then help when asked and only with what is asked for 🙂

  5. I’ve always wondered about this. It sounds logical but I have a question. Do they ever get a high school diploma or any sort of assessment around the age of 18? What do they do of they want to go to college? Thanks!!

    • Hi Jessica! There was a really good post on this that I used to forward to people but unfortunately it seems to have been taken down. There’s no assessment at 18, unless they want to but there are many paths to uni if they choose. I can’t remember them all but they could do distance ed, yr 11 and 12 at school, do TAFE, and there was many other ways too 🙂

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  9. You have absolutely nailed this I totally agree..my second time around and I totally when I home ed the first time my son was once he got going unwittingly unschooled him until he wanted to read and write and I just followed the cue…..This time around with 2 AS. SPD. Delayed speech and language and hybermobility joints and onlu 22 mo ths between them tried the more traditional method but it became quickly apparent I was wasting valuable time and money on obselet resources so equipped now with nothing more than a smart phone and a good mobile and home Internet package 2 galaxy tabs for kids am now unschooling….It is absolutely exhilarating. ..exhausting and best describes as a runaway express train…However the difference in girlie’s is remarkable. .The knowledge and understanding of the world around them is nothing short of amazing…..They have become sponges…..and luckily both seem to develop an instant interest in the others new passion I have learned so much in the short 18 months that we have changed over….The girls are vocalising to everyone eye contact with me and dad too….laughter..happiness..joy…as a family it is more a 3 way relationship Dad is at work so hasn’t really committed to the train as yet…and sadly maybe never will as work gets in his way….and nd this reflects with girlie’s if he is around not quite as much laughter..fun..no singing in the car …However even he omits he never thought it would be possible…2 things I have also learnt they love surprises..and nd nd not so good at premeditated outcomes so any family events they are only told last minute so they cannot have the chance to build up their outcomes..and nd nd nd therefore are now very successfully incorporating family functions etc….melt downs do still happen….but fewer and farther apart and never to the same intensity that they were….
    I never would have believed the changes in my children without the unschooling concept..whether we continue or go on a different journey who knows but I trust in my children’s decisions and am happily prepared to try the road less travelled where ever it may lead..just to here voices where silence used to be for a smile at.me instead of a glance…For the sound of sheer joy and the look upon their beautiful faces…I today am surely blessed…x

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  12. Just a query… I unschool my 3 children (10, 9 and 6) and one of the challenges I have is their love (obsession ?) with gaming and technology! I feel it prevents them from truly exploring life because they want to do it all the time!! My question therefore is, do you restrict tech time? If you feel something is unhealthy do you say no? Thanks in advance xxx

    • You took the words right out of my mouth! I would also love to find out what other parents do about this situation. When I first took my children out of school (6 months ago) we had 3 months of no screens to allow our family to reconnect and experience “real” life together. Now my two children – 8 and 11 have their ipads back, but at the moment we have set up boundaries to assist them with making healthier choices when it comes to how much time they spend on their devices. I have explained that our goal is to allow them to be able to make their own choices but we have not yet taken that big leap. My biggest challenge is the fact that I was completely consumed by my phone many years ago and I am aware of just how seriously this problem affected me.

    • I too am struggling with this, and am finding that when the children were little it was easy to let them self learn. Now that I have a 12 year old, his choices aren’t always creative for learning and not sure if self direction is the right choice for him.

  13. I really liked this, such a great description of unschool! I have tried it all. Public school, charter school, homeschool..nothing really helped my very dyslexic boy learn or want to learn. All of these just increased his anxiety and made him feel like he was not smart. This year I have started unschooling mostly because I just don’t want to do what doesn’t work. But I am afraid to tell my friends because most don’t understand and I feel like maybe I am failing him in some way by not making him do algebra like all the other 9th graders. I look at my son two months into this though and he has learned SO much! He is so motivated to know things. Wow! I love reading these articles because they confirm what I have started to realize about the way to help a child love learning, so thank you!

  14. Do you think that this closes a door to ‘higher-education’ opportunities? I.e. College/university, if that’s what your child one day decides they want to pursue. Or even to get a “high-school” diploma so you have an option to apply? Curious your thoughts on this!

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  22. Thanks very much for this post. I have a 12 year old who has anxiety from school and a 3 year old and 1 year 6 month old who I am trying to make school choices for now. I am tempted by the Reggio Emilio school of thought schools, but also very interested in unschooling. I just worry about the toll it would take on me as the parent who has to provide not only care but be responsible for the learning of my children. I mean some days you barely have the patience to get through all the fighting but maybe that is just because I’m currently balancing the stress of a demanding job and being a parent to two littlies. Do you not find this very demanding in you? Or that it really ups your guilt levels when you fail to have the patience to really answer their questions etc?

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  33. I’m interested in unschooling, but what if you live in a state where it is illegal for a child not to be enrolled in at least homeschool and has at least some mandatory testing even for homeschool? How would you handle that?

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