Do Unschoolers REALLY Learn All On Their Own?

Do Unschoolers REALLY Learn All On Their Own?

In unschooling circles we talk a lot about independent learning. From the outside, people think it’s magical. Children who get up in the morning motivated and capable of getting on with their own learning without the need for adult help? I mean, that does seem unreal.

That’s because it is.

You see, I think we’ve gotten a little confused. Yes, independent learning is fantastic! We want children who can do that because that’s what they’re going to need in adult life. And yes, children are amazingly capable and when they live in an environment that supports self-directed, passionate, motivated learning, then that’s what they’re going to end up doing!

BUT… our job is to help them get there. You cannot just take your children out of school and then expect they will know exactly how to direct their own learning. Independent learning from kids requires involved parents. Even children who have never been to school need this. They can have a million fabulous ideas and intentions, but, without the support and involvement of a caring adult a lot are unlikely to come to fruition.

So, while it does seem magical that children could take care of this education thing all on their own while parents kick back with a good book, it’s just not realistic. And although people think that’s what unschooling is, they’d be wrong. Yes, we value independent learning, but unschooling is about helping our children learn how to do that, not expecting it before they’re ready.

Do Unschoolers REALLY Learn All On Their Own?

“The holy grail of home education seems to be “independent learning.” But the truth is, our quest for that independence is more about relieving our exhaustion than a child’s mastery of material. If we want our kids to be enthusiastic, self-motivated learners, they need collaborators. This sounds counterintuitive, but what if Steven Spielberg’s mom had simply told him he was on his own to be a filmmaker? Would we have Raiders of the Lost Ark, Hook, and Schindler’s List?” -Julie Bogart, The Brave Learner

Independent learning is NOT…

‘Leaving Kids to It’

Do Unschoolers REALLY Learn All On Their Own?

We are our children’s guides in life. We cannot expect to just leave them to it and they will take care of education themselves. Our job is to help them on their way to becoming independent learners and that means playing an active and supportive role.

Even adults do not always learn independently. Are you any less ‘independent’ if you seek out someone’s help along the way to achieving your goal? If you consult an expert? If you enlist the help of a trainer? No! That is what it’s all about; knowing where to find the information you need and getting it!

To get to the point of being able to do that, children need partners in their learning. People who will support and encourage them along the way. People who will help them through the tough stuff so they can feel success and achievement and reach their own goals.

Taking Over

“Mentoring self-directed learners is like rolling a hoop down a hill. You want to let the hoop roll on its own, only touching it when necessary to keep it upright and rolling, and even then as lightly as possible.” – Lori Pickert

No leaving them to it, but no taking over either. We offer as much help as necessary, without going overboard. Children are empowered and own their own learning but have the support and resources to take it as far as they want to go!

Never Offering Suggestions

Do Unschoolers REALLY Learn All On Their Own?

Unschooling means that we follow children’s interests and their education is unique! Some take this to mean they should never suggest anything to their children as all the ideas have to come from them. Not true! You’ve been around much longer than your child and you probably have things to share that they are unaware of. How will they find out if you don’t let them know? What if your child is interested in dinosaurs and you happen to know that there is an exhibition on at the museum? Should you wait until they happen to hear about it themselves or suggest you go together? The latter of course! It’s as simple as that.

Unschooling is not jumping in with a hundred ideas and suggestions as soon as a child mentions a topic or interest, nor is it always remaining silent. It’s a middle ground. It’s waiting to hear your child’s ideas and suggestions first, asking questions, helping them pursue their interests, and offering helpful information and suggestions when necessary or needed.

If you have a suggestion or idea that you want to share because you know they will genuinely like it, or find it helpful, go ahead! Unschooling is a relationship. It would be odd to deliberately hold back because you think that violates the ‘rules’. Go ahead and be authentic! Live and learn together!

“Children feel empowered when they have companions on the journey. There’s a difference between struggle that leads to frustration, and satisfying effort that leads to success. Our task as parents is to facilitate the latter. What enables children to make progress, to problem solve, to overcome obstacles? A troubleshooting partner, that’s what! When parents collaborate, kids learn.” -Julie Bogart, The Brave Learner

Never Reminding

Children have so many ideas and so many interests! As a parent we can help keep track of all that and remind them of their plans if they forget! This is how they eventually learn to do it for themselves. Helping a child identify their questions, reminding them of their own ideas, or things coming up they want to be involved in and prepare for, is all part of unschooling. Children live in the moment! We cannot expect them to be able to do this until we show them how.

“You focus on giving him the tools, experiences, and skills he needs to work as independently as possible. But it doesn’t happen immediately. If it did, he wouldn’t need a thoughtful mentor!” –Lori Pickert

Not Making Time for Interests

Do Unschoolers REALLY Learn All On Their Own?

Unschooling means no curriculum, and no strict schedule. But that doesn’t mean we don’t make time for children to pursue interests. It just means we don’t force them to do a particular thing, or do it at all if they’re not feeling like it today! We make sure there is time for them to work on what is meaningful to them, make ourselves available to help, and support them without taking over.

In our home we have ‘project time’ every home day. This means there’s a reliable time where they know I’m going to be 100% present and available to help them with anything they want to work on. You can read more about it here. This isn’t controlling their learning, or directing it. This is showing them that what they want to do is important and a priority and I will make sure there is time for it! This is taking them seriously and valuing their learning. This is showing them how to prioritise learning and become independent learners.

Not Expanding their World View and Experiences

One criticism we get as homeschoolers is ‘how will they learn about anything outside their home?’ Well, we go out. Supporting learning means being a part of the world, exposing children to new things, places, and people, visiting the library and borrowing many books on different topics, etc. This is something adults must take the lead in. We are not only a mode of transport but we also know what’s out there! We provide so many experiences. If we waited for children to do this ‘independently’ they would miss so much.

Avoiding Influence

We are all a product of our experiences and relationships. They shape us. In the quest for independent children who follow their own interests, sometimes parental influence is portrayed as a bad thing. It can be! Mainstream parenting is often about influencing children in a coercive manner to be compliant and live up to parent’s expectations. In an unschooling context, where parents have deschooled and are committed to accepting their children for who they are and valuing their unique talents and interests, influence is not something to be afraid of. We all influence our children, whether we intend to or not. We want the best for them, we influence them to be healthy, we talk to them about any concerns, we guide them through the tricky stuff in ways we think are best. Attempting to have no influence, to never give advice, to never have an opinion would feel very unnatural. This is what we do in relationships with people we care for. Some of the things my children are interested in are because an adult around them is passionate about the topic! It’s great to be inspired by others.

An Unsupportive Environment

Do Unschoolers REALLY Learn All On Their Own?

Independent learning grows in environments that allow it. Do children have access to all the materials they need, or do they need to wait for help? Are there lots of different things they can use for creating? Are things easy to find and reach for children? Are the resources relevant to their current stage of development? Does the space reflect the personalities of the children that use it? Is is close to where the adults are? All good questions to ask.

Putting Your Own Interests Aside

Part of nurturing independent learners is being a model of what that looks like. Pursue the things that interest you, talk about them with your children, discuss your questions, think out loud, talk about how you will find the information you need, let them see you do it! Show the children in your life what an inspired and motivated learner looks like.

“At the beginning, your child might need you to model how to wonder aloud, ask questions, consider alternatives. He looks to you as an example of how to approach learning as a researcher and investigator. As times goes on, this approach to learning becomes second nature to him. He is accustomed to asking questions, seeking out experts, collecting research materials, investigating first-hand, and creating original work. He looks automatically for ways to share what he learns with others.” –Lori Pickert

Do Unschoolers REALLY Learn All On Their Own?

When we expect total independence in learning before children are ready, they miss so many opportunities to benefit from adult experience and collaboration. Humans were designed to learn together, trying to limit our part in that is not helpful.

Independent motivated learners are what we are nurturing, but that comes gradually. We are likely to see many moments of independent learning in an unschooling family, but also a great amount of collaboration too! Our job as unschooling parents is to support our children and guide them as they learn about the world. That’s way less fun on your own!

“Collaboration requires presence, not help. We aren’t merely providing the bare minimum of support, hoping our kids flounder into independence due to exasperation with us. We’re also not taking over and doing the task on their behalf because they’re ill-equipped. Rather, our job is to partner. Collaboration is an opportunity to let your kids in on the tips and tricks necessary to get “good” at a thing. Think of yourself as a coach and ally, rather than a teacher. Even LeBron James has a coach! If you establish a warm, supportive relationship, you can provide valuable insight to help them grow.” -Julie Bogart, The Brave Learner


October 9, 2019 at 10:03 pm

at what age usually children will learn independently?

Andrea Bandera
October 15, 2019 at 7:39 am

Hi, I would like to know if you have a post about how you organized the space your kids use to work on projects. I am new in unschooling, and reading all I can about it. Thank you

December 28, 2021 at 9:51 pm

Hi! I have 6 kids and we homeschool. Most of the time we unschool but i am stuck a bit. Does your kids learn all their own thing? We most of the time do more like projects for them all… but i wonder if i am capable of help them all when they all do other things 🙈 are you a bee who fly from one to another? Or do you have ‘time’ for each kid?

April 12, 2022 at 8:36 am

I am a pre k and former first grade teacher. I have been reading your blog for a while now. It often comes across my FB newsfeed. At first, I was confused by unschooling. It seemed that the kids were set free to do what ever they wanted and the learning was just supposed to happen. After reading this post, I see I prejudged unschooling just a bit. This article makes it clear that you do guide your children’s learning, and lead them into discoveries that suit their interest. My favorite line in any of your articles so far is where you say “We are our children’s guides in life. We cannot expect to just leave them to it and they will take care of education themselves. Our job is to help them on their way to becoming independent learners and that means playing an active and supportive role.” Based on my previous view from earlier articles, that surprised me. I agree with so much of this article. I feel like you may have had a bad experience with school and have as narrow a view on school as I did on unschooling. I think we are more alike than we are different. In my pre k class, we have an uninterrupted “work” time where the children are free to explore the room. This is much like your project time. It is self paced and self driven. Just today, I had a group playing like they were a family and they were getting ready to go into their shelter because a tornado was coming. Another group was using stencils, colored pencils and watercolors, all self chosen materials, to make art. A couple of girls were “writing” letters home. A few kids were playing with and naming dinosaurs. One little boys was looking at slides on a microscope. A group of boys were putting on a puppet show, a couple played a board game and a couple built with magna blocks. We have two teachers in the room and we are there to assist them as needed. I got water for the art group. Listened as the dinosaur group taught me names of dinosaurs. Assisted with the microscope slides and talked about what he saw. Asked questions about the block construction and generally milled around the room before I did a little work on the computer myself. We are bound by a lunch and recess schedule because we have to share those facilities. The rest of our day , although we have schedule, is flexible. Like your rhythm. It is predictable but not more important than the children’s needs of the moment. You have changed my mind a bit about unschooling. I hope I can change yours a bit about school. Children are wonderful, smart and creative and I think we agree on many more things as well.

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