The Three Stages of Unschooling
It’s fun to look back on what our life as an unschooling family has looked like over the last 10+ years, and most days I get a chance to do that thanks to facebook memories. Sometimes cringey, always nostalgic!
Yep, that’s me saying that we were just trying homeschooling for the first year of school, and that’s also me sharing a post about how school is prison a few years later. Oh, I’m playing at creeks with my kids and talking about how natural learning is all they need, and yep I’m also printing off a Pinterest activity on CVC words for my 5-year-old. Ah, it’s all wonderful.
When I look back at photos, scroll through the archives of this blog, and think back to how I felt at certain times, I think I can see clear stages in my unschooling journey. Those around me seemed to have similar experiences too. We don’t turn into unschoolers over night, it’s a process. But, wherever you are on the journey is ok.
So, here’s what I see as the main stages in an unschooling journey! Where do you fit?
The Three Stages of Unschooling
STAGE 1: Testing The Waters
This stage is when you’re just starting out. Maybe you don’t even call it ‘unschooling’ yet, but you know you want something different to mainstream education, or school-at-home.
If your children are young you might just want to delay the start of school until they are a bit older. You believe in play-based and natural learning. You make sure there is a lot of time for play and know that there is so much learning involved, but maybe you’re still also making sure you’re setting up ‘educational’ activities so you can tell they are learning the academic things they should be too.
If your children are older and have just left school you might be comfortable with them taking some time out to deschool, but also feel a bit anxious about how long it will take. You might be ‘unschooling all subjects except reading and maths’.
These are the common first steps! You start reading some books, you love the idea of unschooling, you’ve started to try it out, but those ingrained school beliefs are strong and you’re a little nervous. Seeing is believing and you haven’t seen it yet. You want to trust your children and believe this way of educating will be successful, but it takes time. That’s ok! Everyone starts here. It’s ok to trust bit by bit until you feel comfortable. You can’t shake off a lifetime of beliefs in a day. Enjoy your time in this space getting to know your children, how they learn, and what you all want education to look like for your family.
Helpful things to do in this stage:
-Observe your children. Be curious about what they’re interested in, how they learn, and their favourite ways to spend their time.
-Read a lot of books and articles to inspire you and challenge your beliefs. Some favourite recommendations here.
-Meet other unschoolers, join a community and get involved. Find other adults who are in the same stage and further along to learn from and bounce ideas off.
-Live an interesting life! Go to community events, read books together, cook together, visit interesting places, catch up with friends, watch documentaries. Notice all the learning that is occuring just by living a fun life together.
STAGE 2: Going All In
In this stage of unschooling, you’re fully invested. You believe in this idea. You’ve had some successes, your eyes have been opened, and you are feeling totally done with schoolish thoughts and ideas! You want to scream ‘FREEDOM!’ from the rooftop! You’re invested and you’re passionate. You cannot believe other people don’t understand how freakin good this idea is. (Guys, I’m pretty sure I started my blog as I was entering this stage. That was me shouting about it!).
You swing completely in the opposite direction from before. Not only do you ditch the toxic school beliefs, but here comes total freedom and autonomy. Your family and friends better get ready for some shocking new developments, haha! Goodbye bedtimes, rules, screen limits, food restrictions, you are embracing trust in every area! You want your kids to feel the freedom they deserve. Your life looks nothing like school at all.
You back right off, you don’t want to influence your children too much. You don’t want them burdened by your history, or society’s outdated beliefs. You might find the changes you are making confronting and triggering at times but you embrace that feeling and work through it. You’re doing a huge amount of deschooling here. You also might struggle with setting boundaries, not sure where the line is between controlling and supporting. You’re examining your intentions very critically and might feel a bit unsure of your role.
You may end up going too far in the opposite direction to before. It’s ok. Sometimes you need to do that in order to feel the boundaries, learn where they are, discover your values and work out what feels good for your family.
Helpful things to do in this stage:
– Spend time with a range of different homeschoolers and unschoolers, see what their families and kids are like, get a feel for what kind of life you’re aiming for.
-Keep reading! Always. Read widely about education, child development, unschooling, and examples of what it looks like for others too.
-Keep deschooling and challenging your beliefs, but also try to practice making mistakes too. It won’t hurt. Experiment with how you support your kids, either a little or a lot, see how it feels for them, and learn the kind of support each child needs in their learning and life. Use trial and error to work out how to support them.
-Use your energy and inspiration to create the life you want! Maybe you can start a community or co-op!
-Try not to hold too tightly to the ideas you form in this stage. Some of them are brilliant, some of them you might decide to let go of. That’s ok. You’re not laying down rules that can’t be broken, you’re experimenting and trying different things to find out what’s right for your family.
STAGE 3: Finding Balance
You’ve been unschooling for a while now. You no longer feel anxious about your choice and your kids missing out on learning something crucial (discounting a once-yearly freakout you might have, just to keep things interesting. This is totally normal). You have also moved past the second stage where you backed right off in every way. You’ve found the balance. You aren’t worried about missing school, but you aren’t afraid of your own influence and involvement either. You are confident in holding personal boundaries, discussing concerns with your children, and problem-solving together.
You know your children and have a strong connection with them. You trust them, and you trust yourself too. You are in this together. You recognise unschooling is not something you are doing to your children, nor is it something they are doing on their own. You’ve worked out the best ways to support each child, what feels good, what your family’s interests and strengths are, and have a strong family culture.
There are normal ups and downs, but on the whole unschooling feels good, and natural, and like an enjoyable life lived together.
Added bonus: you don’t really care what others think anymore, you’re doing whatever works for your own family.
Stage three is where it’s at. But, unfortunately (or fortunately) you can’t just skip to that part. It takes time, and that’s ok. Each stage is important. Don’t try to rush through it, but instead enjoy it. Enjoy the excitement of trying something new in stage one, getting to know your children, learning about them, seeing how different education can look, and trying a variety of different things. Then enjoy the passion and conviction of stage two, the newfound freedom, pushing the boundaries, proving people wrong even! Enjoy the trust and adventure of doing something completely different. Then settle into stage three with confidence and experience. Maybe there’s even a stage four where your children are grown but you know unschooling has no end date and you’re now supporting adults in a different way. More details on that will have to wait some years from me!
I know we all think it would be good if we could do things ‘perfectly’ from the start, but the truth I now see is that these stages in our unschooling journeys are all perfect in their own way, full of discovery and beautiful memories. Maybe you will make some choices along the way that you later disagree with. That’s ok! You have permission to learn and grow, just as your children do. We’re on this journey together through every stage, co-creating this amazing life along the way, and I’d never wish away a minute of that.