How to Unschool
You really want to know don’t you? If you’re new to home education you just really want someone to tell you how to do it. What does it look like? How do you know what they need to learn? How do you know you’re doing enough? How do you plan your days? What if they don’t want to learn anything?
And I remember the answer was always ‘it’s different for everyone’ and ‘you have to find your own way’. And how frustrating that was! Ok, I know it’s different for everyone but won’t someone please just give me an example, a plan, some direction!
No, they won’t. That’s not unschooling, is it?
Unschooling is about letting go and trusting and following the child’s lead. And most of the time it’s a mindset that doesn’t really happen overnight. It’s a gradual letting go of what you’ve been taught about learning and children and education, and an increasing trust in the process of natural learning.
So you don’t need to have all the answers now. You don’t need to know how to do anything except live your life as you have been already.
We’ve believed for so long that formal education starts at around five years of age. That when our children turn five we suddenly need to do something, when all the years before that we watched them learn and grow with relatively little direction from adults. Suddenly, when they turn five, things are different. There’s a list of things they need to know and if we don’t get it into their heads now they will fall ‘behind’. Panic!
Consequently, people sometimes feel that when their child hits school age they need to ‘start unschooling’. Really, you’ve been unschooling since birth. Letting your child learn at their own pace, whatever they were interested in. There is no need to change that now. The only plan you need is life.
Unschooling is living as if school does not exist. So forget ‘school-age’. Forget the schedules and the curriculum, and just keep doing what you are doing. Playing, exploring, growing and learning together. And the further along you get, the more you are able to see how natural learning really does just happen through life. Children gravitate to what interests them and what they need to know for this stage of their life. They are so capable of taking the lead in their education and the more you see it the more you begin to let go of old fears and beliefs and just trust.
It’s a magical thing to witness.
I love your blog, I follow your posts daily and they inspire me to live my life with my son differently, better, more peacefully. What I am always left wondering however how I could ever do it myself is. Not in terms of taking care of my children’s education, but in terms of leaving my job, living on one income, not having a career when they grow up. Did you ever struggle with these questions or are your life circumstances so different that those are not really issues you had to deal with when deciding to home-school.
Thank you for sharing you story, it is trully inspiring.
Hi Barbara, Just wanted to let you know that I’m a working mum of three and we learn without school. At current we are making both work because i shift work so my husband has them when I work. It was never in our original plan to not school so financially i still need to work atm. But i also love living this way so we are making it work.
This is something I think I would love to try, it would mean a big adjustment – not spending almost any time together as a whole family- but it would give kids so much more free, unstructured time. It is just hard to fathom how to get there, living in a part of the world where there is almost no variability in work schedules and the salaries are not high enough to support the whole family.
There are unschooling schools, they’re often called democratic, free, or sudbury schools. Sudbury schools have a list: http://sudburyvalleyschool.org/07_othe_01.html
Some parents have made unschooling work but taking their kids to work.
Others use babysitters, nannies, tutors, etc. Some form collectives with other families.
Obviously these work for everyone but it’s some more options to consider
Hi I am wondering if your children have computers on a play station etc? Mine do and my fear in the idea of unschooling is that they would choose to be on them all day. Currently I set limits on the amount of time my 6 year old son is on the playstation and it has become a bit of a battle ground between us which I find very difficult. I would be very happy for my children to play all day, be creative and be outdoors as much as they like but on a computer I wouldn’t be comfortable with this. Any advice on this would be most welcome. Thanks Anne
Hi Anne! We have a TV and an iPad which they use but I haven’t found they ever choose to use them all day. We go out, we do things together at home. I just try to make our environment so interesting that choosing to watch TV instead would be a boring option. That’s all I’ve had to do so far 🙂
In reply to this great post my unschooled kids are different. One LOVES unschooling and learning anything he can. My special needs girl, HATES it and plays online all the time…however I found that she is athletic and can comprehend computer software and languages at 8. We have something to build on. I was scared my kids would choose the Wii and I pads over other things….it was that way for a few weeks. They tired of it and I tired of battling for limits on those things. Now we do such a variety of activities in our rural area and have such different days, I am letting go of that system that failed me when I was a kid.
Hi Barbara! I always planned on being a stay at home mum so I guess it just flowed from there. I never went back to work after my first daughter was born so we have been used to living on one income for a long time. I can see it would be a big adjustment for people who have always had two incomes. I don’t really worry about not having a career when they grow up. That’s a long while away and I’m sure I’ll figure it out! 🙂
I really appreciated the honesty in this blog post. I particularly resonated with the fact that the process of ‘letting go’ is a gradual and cathartic one.
I often fall back into old mindsets, and the memories of the negative indoctrination I suffered at school; does effect my confidence as a mother sometimes.
I response to practically being able to chose a ‘life learning’path and not one where school’s involved; we decided that we were going to work from home and have our own business.
It’s not easy, it can be stressful and pressured at times, but I wouldn’t change it. We’re with our children all the time, and they see what it takes to be business owners. I want to encourage both my daughters to have their own business.
By far, one of the BEST descriptions of unschooling I have had the privilege to run across!
Thank you so much 🙂
I see a lot of posts about unschooling and while my wife and I are on board for some form of homeschooling/unschooling. Is there a line to be drawn anywhere? What if they are 30 and never learned to budget and still live at home. What about a 10 year old that can’t read yet? An 8 year old that doesn’t know ABCs? Is this acceptable unschooling? Do we just make sure they can read, write, and do math and skip all the wonders of the world? What if they are sheltered so much they don’t even know what the oceans are other than if they saw it in a movie?
If you equip your child with the skills to learn it doesn’t really matter what they learn in childhood. When they decide budgeting is important they will be able to learn it, when they decide they want to read they will learn to do so (though most do by age 10). If they want to learn about other cultures they will be able to do that too. If you’ve fed the fires of curiosity and learning then hopefully they will always be learning, always be wanting to know something.
Most do not graduate highschool knowing everything we’re ever going to need to know, not to mention all the things we learned that are then proven wrong. I work in social media now, it didn’t exist when I was in school. Most schools don’t teach budgeting, labour law, how to rent an apartment, and most other life skills – and if they do as an unused skill it may be forgotten.
Obviously, as a parent educator you need to make sure that there’s nothing holding your children back. Make sure they’re not having issues learning to read because of vision problems, for example. Obviously you make sure they have the skills to do the basics – like clean themselves, and at some point laundry, cooking, cleaning, and other life skills. Undirected learning isn’t the same as not being given responsibilitie – or to put it another way, it’s not the same as not being given opportunities to use and learn skills.
Yes I agree with all of that my problem with unschooling is it can turn into NOschooling and the big thing here is to fuel the fire. What if they never know something exists how can they ask to learn about it?
Father of 2 – I had so many of the same fears when we began unschooling! At some point I told my son that if he didn’t learn to read he wasn’t going to be able to buy groceries and eat when he was grown up! (Oops!) Of course he did learn to read, half a year later, and within just a few weeks, since that seemed to be his way of going about it. Now my kids are much older, and with some perspective I see that allowing them the freedom to grow and develop on their own schedule (and without one!) has allowed them to become the kind of people they want to be. I didn’t teach them anything, but I certainly jumped on for the ride when they were following their interests, and they have often followed mine, with me. At 13, my son understands more about physics than his father, who studied it in university… and less about spelling than his 10-year-old sister. Am I worried? Not at all! Because in their varied ways, both kids are learning to live in the world on their own terms. When we stopped seeing life as subject-areas and achievements, we started living. And doing something is the best way to learn it… including life. We do life with abandon. 🙂
I wish you well. Letting go is hard, hard work. It’s the most difficult thing I have ever done, and I know now that I’ll never be finished. But it’s SO rewarding for everyone.
Yes but you told your son he needed to learn to read and with that knowledge of reading he was able to learn physics.
Well, actually, me trying to convince him to learn to read was what turned him off of books for over half a year. He went from being an avid book ‘reader’ (interpreting pictures) to not opening a single book out of rebellion for the stressful way I was trying to encourage him to learn to read. For over half a year he did not open a book. In the end, I gave up trying, and within weeks he became interested in street signs, and taught himself how to read, while we were out. That was actually the point when I think I really turned the corner. I did not ‘equip’ him for anything but rather gave him freedom to equip himself.
It truly is incredibly difficult to believe that no schooling at all can lead to the conventional ‘abilities’ that our children will need to thrive in our culture, but actually, if we involve ourselves in our culture, then we will find the skills we need to progress, and we’ll develop them, because we want and need to.
Unschooling for us has indeed meant NOschooling, until this year (for social reasons my son decided to go to a local school for the first time in grade 7). And it has turned out pretty well, despite the fears we originally had.
Thank you for your encouraging words, @Emily. And thank you, obviously, to @sara too. We have just made the decision to do it!
Congratulations! I hope you will love it as much as we have. I posted this a long time ago here, and now my kids are 13 and 16 and we have experimented with schools for social reasons (not enough unschoolers in our community). Everything we’ve tried has reminded us how wonderful unschooling is, and we’re whole-heartedly committed. I hope you’ll also have a very positive experience!
Father of 2 – I would also recommend looking at Jennifer McGrail’s site, especially the FAQ, because she answers some of your questions. She is the mother of four kids and has been unschooling for over a decade :).
–> http://www.jennifermcgrail.com/faq/ .
Unschooling is not about sheltering children or just leaving them to it. Unschooling parents are involved and always providing opportunities and experiences for their kids and seeing what sparks an interest. But learning is always consensual. We can show them the world but they get to choose what interests them, what they want to learn about, and when. It’s not about just leaving them totally to their own devices 🙂
Unschooling is not “Lord of the Flies” you do not just drop them off on a desert island and leave them to their own devices. Unschooling is being very attentive and aware of what they are working on in their life and facilitating that work and learning every way you can. You dedicate time, money, research, connections, and family time to help them achieve their goals. It is not about ticking boxes on someone’s list of things they should know when. It is about you pursuing life long learning yourself so you can help them grow to be life long learners. It is not the filling of buckets but the lighting of fires!
I love the phylosophies of both unschooling and especially world schooling. I am raising my two young children mostly in India, where they have everyday face to face learning of language, culture, religion, live, death. I feel like India really is a school of life in so many ways. I see my children evolving and learning at a rate that I can barely keep up with. The main issue I am needing advice and support around is the legalities of not having my children in school. It’s required in America, so how do all you fabulous unschooling parents work around the system so to speak? My children have been young enough before that it didnt matter but now my son has turned 6 and is “school age” any advice?
Unschooling is legal in all states of the US, as long as you register your kids as “homeschoolers.” There are different homeschool requirements for each state, so you’d just have to check what those are before registering your kids.
What a fantastic experience! I’m not sure on America but if it’s like what Bee says then it sounds very similar to Australia. We register as homeschoolers 🙂
Hi there Bliss Mom!
I was reading this article and the comments and saw that you are living in India. I am in South Africa and unschooling my 10 year old son for the last 6 months, and still rather new to “letting go”!
My son and I have been going to India since he was a baby for about 2 months every year, and plan to immigrate to India in March 2016. I was wondering if there was an unschooling community in Rajasthan?
I share your view on India being an ideal place to unschool: life in all its glory is abundant in India.
Wow! This post was so inspiring! My husband and I have been talking lately about taking our kids out of school and letting them learn through life experiences more than sitting at a desk bored all day. I am so happy to see I’m not the only person with this mentality!
Thank you Liz! 🙂
Thank you so much for this post. The message is simple and exactly what I need to be reminded of. My kids (and I) are learning every single day, with or without school and I’m so excited to have the chance to support my kids in their interests (currently makeup and soccer).
As a Canadian looking to unschool my kids, I’m coming up with a lot of resistence. Funny thing is, it’s from those that know nothing about education. And if I hear “how will they be socialized” one more time…
Looking forward to following you on your journey.
Journeys of The Zoo
Oh gosh, don’t get me started on socialization lol.
As an adult whose parents “unschooled”, I hate the term and would much have rather my parents sent me to public school, or at least set me down with some type of schedule. My self confidence in my abilities to do anything other than run a household are very low, as my other skills (other than reading, which I love and is the only way i’ve learned anything) are self learned/taught with very very little parental guidance or instruction. We started out as homeschoolers, but as the family got larger, the parents got lazier (this is my personal experience, I know its not the norm so please don’t think I’m generalizing. No offense meant to other large families!) and other things like chores and helping raise the other kids became more important than any learning.It was always “later” when we asked to do anything. I completely agree with the “Path Less Taken” approach, where she answers what they do all day. THAT is how unschooling/homeschooling is supposed to work…by giving your child life experiences, and using them as teaching moments. However, if you always keep your child at home, never go on trips to the library, or museums, or even really out to play, but rather always send them out on their own, how can they learn? I agree with free play, and I know kids can learn from their surroundings, but after a while of being in the same environment, with no new parental information or guidance, it gets monotonous. I’m very hands on with my children, and my 3 year old is very inquisitive so I use that interest to teach her. She will be in the kitchen helping me bake, and ask what flour is, so we feel it, taste it, and I explain that we make bread by mixing it with baking soda and salt to give it air and make it fluffy. Experiences like that, I never really received because we were always “too busy” and just had to get the dishes, cooking, cleaning etc done. So, I guess what I’m trying to say…is as someone who has been taught this way, please make sure you continue to “teach” your children, and take an interest in what they want to learn…not start to use it as an excuse to be a lazy parent because “well, they will learn all they need to from the world around them”.
I’m sorry you had that experience. It definitely don’t sound like unschooling to me. Unschooling isn’t lazy and sheltered. It’s much more like you described. Giving your children many and varied life experiences and learning naturally through them 🙂
Here in Florida we have just suffered through our first round of state required testing. The teachers are stressed, the children are stressed, the classes are forced to first make sure the kids learn everything that will be on the test. And if the teacher has any time in the day after that then they can teach the kids other topics. This is the reason they no longer teach cursive hand writing, there isn’t enough time. It has prompted me to look into other options. I have one son (my oldest) who is a completely self directed learner and my youngest son who is not not not not. He needs an incredible amount of structure which I struggle to provide on weekends, summer vacation, etc. As a stay-at-home mom I don’t structure my day, I just float around the house going from one task to the next. They would love nothing more than to spend all day on some sort of gaming system. My husband says no way we could home school because the dishes and laundry aren’t getting done as it is. My oldest son spent kindergarten at a private school and learned so mcyh in one year I could not believe it. But the way finances crashed here in America, we cannot afford that school anymore. When he went to 1st grade at a public school he spent the whole 1st grade bored because he had literally learned it all in K. Now it is my youngest that is in K at the public school and I can see that he is not learning a third of the things my oldest had learned. (But at least he won’t b bored in 1st grade) From ages 0-4 life was so enjoyable. I was a on the floor hands on mom and loved showing them and teaching them about the world around them. My oldest was tested in 1st grade and his IQ is 150. My gut reaction was that I had failed him by not doing more academics at home. His teachers told me that it was the opposite and that anyone could tell that I had worked with him a great deal at home allowing him to learn in a way that was fun. Sounds a lot like what you are saying about unschooling. When the new state tests were introduced this year a lot of families have pulled their kids out of school to home school them. My oldest son said he would hate this because he would miss his friends. I told him he would make new friends and that we could still see his old friends on weekends but he said it would still be sad. He’s an extremely emotional sensitive kid. My youngest is impulsive, strong willed and needs constant redirection. He’s 6 and to say that he’s a handful is an understatement. When I have looked into homeschooling in Florida we also have virtual school but I’m not sure this experience would be anything like true homeschooling. My husband is now fighting cancer (and winning!), I have clinical depression and anxiety, and basically, I seriously doubt that my family (especially me) has the structure and organization, and the commitment and follow through required to unschool. Sure sounds tempting, though. Thank you so much for sharing.
Dawn – I’m in Florida, too! 🙂 (no kids yet, though)
I just wanted to say I’m sorry you’re going through all of that, it sounds like a tough situation. I can’t decide for you, but if I were in your situation I don’t think I would unschool or homeschool – at least not for a while. That way, your kids will still be learning (even if it’s less ideal) in school, and you and your husband can focus on yourselves and each other for a bit, and get better first. What you CAN do is stimulate and share in the interests your kids do have. Play a computer game with them, take them to a museum about XYZ (whatever they’re interested in) or watch a movie or documentary together…anything to stimulate those interests even more :). All the best to you and your husband.
PS. Sara, sorry for commenting on so many posts…I just love your blog :).
I love this post on unschooling. I think you can give examples though I have had to explain many times and give examples to relatives and other homeschooling friends so they understood why I didn’t hide the children from the truant officer! I often would here of an exhibit at a museum and plan a trip, or purchase a globe for no reason and leave it on the coffee table with some books about world cultures or the antarctic or the city we live in and let them go at it. They ask the questions, and come up with the lesson plans. If no one payed attention (which never happens) I would just put it away for later. It doesn’t need to be elaborate just part of what we as a family do, we learn together.
First, I want to say that your blog is really inspiring!
What do you do when one parent is interested on the ‘unschooling’ concept and the other doesn’t?
I have a son, which will celebrate his first year on february, and I’d love to have him with me at home, letting him learn as he please. as that’s the way I prefer to learn too. But my husband isn’t very receptive to the idea. Do you have any suggestions on how can I show him the beneficials of this learning style?
Thank you so much!
Oh that is really hard!
Here’s a post my husband wrote on how it happened for us: https://happinessishereblog.com/2014/11/deciding-to-homeschool-dads-perspective/
And these are some great links I’d get him to read: https://happinessishereblog.com/2015/07/favourite-homeschooling-links/
Thank you for this. Its what I needed to read . I have three children who I’m going to homeschool and one of them has severe autism and the other has adhd and it scares me because I feel so lost and It scares me that I’m going to screw them up if I homeschooling. I don’t know where to start or we’re to go from here but I love how unschooling works.
Gloria you can do it! It’s just life 🙂
Please don’t buy into the whole adhd thing and medicate as it actually ruined two of my kids the were in traditional school as I have removed my middle kid off the meds I got to see the actual kid I had and boy is he completely different then he was on the meds adhd was made up by the people to get kids to conform and last I knew we were in America what ever happened to kids just being kids. I was as rambunctious as the rest you just need to redirect them the society as a whole has failed our kids in education putting to much pressure on them to be better than their peers my youngest is smart as a whip and has adhd but I refuse to medicate cause it messes with their hearts… my oldest stopped taking his meds on his own one day and became a real person holds a job and makes his way through life better then he could before
Beautifully written! We are considering home schooling and I have a dream to road school the children but am stuck in a bit of fear and uncertain how to proceed. Thank you for this beautiful post. Very inspiring! I am glad I found you on Pinterest and look forward to reading more of your blog!
Awesome! You won’t regret it!
Thank you. I have been home schooling a 4 and 5 year old for the last 5 months in England, GB. I am very keen on the unschooling principle, but my husband, despite being very supportive in our home schooling, is finding it very difficult to let go of mindsets about learning from repetitive worksheets and tests etc . . . (We are older parents, this might be part of our difficulty !!). Your blog has really encouraged me to keep pushing onwards, knowing that I am really doing the best thing that I can for my children. So many times, in only a short space of time, I have asked myself these sorts of questions over and over again. So, thank you for putting me back on track full of positivity and a big smile on my face.
Oh fabulous! xx
“Really, you’ve been unschooling since birth. Letting your child learn at their own pace, whatever they were interested in. There is no need to change that now. The only plan you need is life.”
I’m one of those guilty of looking for an unschooling/life learning recipe. What a fabulous surprise to find it in the above quote! I have two boys (17 & 9) and now a baby girl after 8 years (6 months old). I’ve been watching her intently. It’s fascinating how much she has learned with only minor facilitation from those around her. Perhaps she will help me learn to trust.
Hi! I love the idea of unschooling! Just wondering how to balance that with the requirements of the state where we live?
I recently left my public school teaching career in order to unschool my own kiddos. We use play, travel, museums, and lots of books with my 15 month old now. I’m grateful she doesn’t have to go to a daycare that uses a “curriculum”. I love your blog and agree it takes time to learn to trust the kiddos. Thank you for sharing.
So love this, but I’m confused. How do children learn to write and spell, even read without sitting down and doing the book work?
Isn’t it amazing? They actually can teach themselves to read. My 7 year old taught herself. I never knew until I started looking into unschooling either. Here’s a good article for you http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201002/children-teach-themselves-read
They will learn it through travel I used to take my daughter at 6 on the road with me while I was truck driving across the country and she asked what this sign and that sign said and after two weeks on the road she started reading the signs to me without me asking and then learned at 6 how to read a map and help me plan my trips I was amazed how fast she just picked it up we are now getting out is traditional school and enjoying more of our time together kids are naturally curious just feed them the info and be attentive they will learn
I’ve been wanting to bring my kids home since I sent them to public education, but I haven’t known how to do it or what to do. Now, I feel like I’m dying having them at school, and have been seriously leaning towards unschooling. They don’t like it, I don’t like it. It’s a fight every morning! I just don’t know how to do it being s product of public education. How do you take the plunge from public school to interest led education? I have six young (8-1) children, and adding more. Thanks!
This makes me so happy
This is wonderfully written, but your children appear to be quite young. I do wonder what unschooling looks like as children become older, as they consider higher education and/or careers which are still built on a foundation of achievement metrics during primary education. I lean toward unschooling more and more myself, but I also want to ensure my son has access to the same resources and opportunities as he transitions to adulthood. Do you know of others with older children who might be sharing or willing to share their experiences? Thanks for shining a light on this option for others.
This is a good article 🙂 https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201406/survey-grown-unschoolers-i-overview-findings
“We’ve believed for so long that formal education starts at around five years of age. That when our children turn five we suddenly need to do something, when all the years before that we watched them learn and grow with relatively little direction from adults. Suddenly, when they turn five, things are different. There’s a list of things they need to know and if we don’t get it into their heads now they will fall ‘behind’. Panic”
I didn’t realize that this is what I have been doing until I read it. Thank you. Truly.