Unschooling: What is it?
Have you ever heard of the term ‘unschooling’? Perhaps you have, but you don’t really have a good understanding of what it means. Depending on where you look, you may find various definitions of the word.
Unschooling.com says “Unschooling is a method of homeschooling that puts the desire, drive, motive and responsibility for life – this thing we call learning, or education – in the hands of the learner.”
John Holt said this of unschooling, “When pressed, I define unschooling as allowing children as much freedom to learn in the world, as their parents can comfortably bear.”
The Natural Child Project offers a great description of what unschooling isn’t, as well as what it can be.
For our family, unschooling has been an experience of child-led learning, parent facilitation, exploration of new ideas and activities, and a letting go of the mindset that learning must take place in a very specific style, place, or order.
You may think that there are specific materials needed in order to begin an unschooling lifestyle. There is no one list that I could give you that would fit your needs in the same way that it might fit mine and my children’s needs. If you’re like us, then your needs and desires are ever-changing. Keeping items and materials on hand which can be used for a variety of projects and activities is a great idea.
In our home, a list might include supplies such as chalk pastels, watercolor paint, watercolor paper, washable paint, board games, word games, movies, an iPad which includes fun apps, many books, both fiction and non-fiction, gardening tools, special pens and pencils for drawing, scissors, glue, beads, bibles, musical instruments, and so much more! As you learn more about your children and their interests, you will know better what to provide, and as they learn more about themselves, they will understand what to ask for, too.
Any child, or parent for that matter, can unschool. In fact, we do it often without realizing it. Every time we immerse ourselves in a subject, reading about it exhaustively, talking with others who know about it, finding opportunities to work in our field of interest, until we have learned all that we can and wish to know about our chosen topic? That is unschooling. It is driven by the learner and helped along by those around him.
If you would like to learn more about what unschooling is and what it can look like, there are many resources available to you online. Simply search the term ‘unschooling’ and you will find many links through which to browse. Here are a few sites with which I started and learned a lot!
As with anything, please take what works for you, what feels best for your family, and leave the rest. There is no one formula or right way to homeschool, and the same goes for unschooling, in my opinion!
John Holt is credited with coining the term ‘unschooling’. You can learn more about him, his efforts at education reform, and unschooling over at John Holt GWS.
I have spent a lot of time reading online and in books about what unschooling is or isn’t, what it can look like, what others think it is, whether you are a ‘true’ unschooler if you utilize textbooks at any time (in my opinion, you are), and more. In my reading and researching I have developed a special liking for a few resources and I want to share them with you here.
- The unschooling handbook: How to Use the Whole World as Your Child’s Classroom
- The Art of Strewing: Instilling the Love of Learning by Piquing your Child’s Natural Curiosity
- Unschooling Rules
- Learning All the Time
- Dumbing Us Down
- The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education
You may be wondering how to implement this way of learning, especially if you have already begun moving down a different educational path. May I make a couple of suggestions?
- Take it slowly. You do not need to concern yourself with making changes immediately and completely. Choose one area where you feel comfortable experimenting. Maybe it’s something your children already spend a lot of time reading about, researching, and experimenting with. This is how it went with our family. My eldest two children had an interest in art, I had no skill to teach them, and we did not have money for lessons. So we visited the library often and they taught themselves to draw through reading books, practicing, and reading some more. With encouragement from me and from their dad to continue trying if it was something they truly wanted to learn to do, they both eventually became quite capable artists. They are still honing their craft today and I am excited to see how far they go with it in life!
- Read, research, renew. To me, unschooling is just as much, if not more, about educating ourselves as parents as it is about letting our children direct their learning. There is actually a term for this, called deschooling. We must learn to let go of our schoolish thinking, and embrace the idea that learning happens all the time, in any environment, and through many outlets.
As you begin to see what learning really is and can be, I believe that you will gain the confidence as I have, to let go of even more. Your thinking will change. You will learn to trust that your kids will learn! This process of letting go has been rewarding, frightening, exhilarating, and freeing. I didn’t have the courage to do it all at once. One small step at a time is what got me here. Maybe it’s what will get you there, too.
Will you take the first step by following some of the links above or finding one of the books I’ve suggested, and learning more? You’ve got very little to lose, and so much to gain!
We are also unschoolers. For us it means without force letting our son follow his interests…whatever that looks like. I think you are correct in that for many families unschooling may look different. What works for my family may not work for another. Great post Wendy!
Thanks. That is one of the things I love most about homeschooling, the ability and freedom to tailor our children’s education around what works best for our family. Thanks for your encouragement, Erin!
The term unschooling keeps popping up recently, which I find pretty interesting. It sounds so similar to other ideas I’ve used throughout education ranging from the perspectives of John Dewey to project-based learning, particularly in relation to the project-based learning approach as advocated by Katz and Chard. Do you ever see people in the unschooling movement referencing any of these established educational ideas that are representative of some types of “schooling” that are very similar to “unschooling” ? If not, why do you think that is?
Homeschooling and unschooling definitely have its benefits. The list is endless. The most important is that learning was simply a normal part of everyday life. Also being able to spend so much time with the family, being able to travel whenever we wanted, and so on. Thanks for shedding light on unschooling. Great read!