What is Unschooling?
“What is unschooling?” That’s one of the top questions people ask me about our family’s travel lifestyle and homeschooling style.
The definition of unschooling seems as unique as the families who choose to unschool. What unschooling families typically share, however, is a passion for interest-driven education–the child’s interest.
Education legend John Holt, who after working within schools for years and came to advocate for homeschooling, once explained unschooling as “interest driven, child-led, natural, organic, eclectic, or self-directed learning.” He defined “unschooling as allowing children as much freedom to learn in the world, as their parents can comfortably bear.” According to Holt,
Unschooling is the natural way to learn.
Living is learning. From the time children wake up in the morning until they go to bed, learning happens. Ben Hewitt, an unschooling father and author of the Outside Magazine article, We Don’t Need No Education, seems to well understand the idea that living is learning and that children are natural learners when given the opportunity to do so. The unschooling learning timetable and syllabus may not resemble that of public schools, but learning is organic and natural, particularly when a child is given room to pursue his/her own interests, environment, and surrounding world.
As with any philosophy or approach, there is an unschooling spectrum. There are families who identify generically as “unschoolers,” others as “radical unschoolers,” and still others as “subject-by-subject unschoolers.” Regardless of the name they use to describe their approach, these families subscribe to the idea of natural learning.
Natural learning, also sometimes referred to as experiential learning, independent learning, or hands-off education, can take many forms. Sometimes parents are completely hands-off, allowing a child to direct every aspect of his/her learning. Some parents are more actively involved in shaping the child’s education, but let the child steer learning as much as possible.
We are largely unschoolers.
I didn’t always describe our homeschooling approach as unschooling, but over the years the style has evolved–it has relaxed as I’ve come to trust and see that my children will naturally learn and want to learn if I give them space to be free. Space to discover who they are. Room to discover what they love. Getting to this point took time for me. I didn’t comfortably bear the thought that my children could acquire an education without sitting down at the table for school lessons.
I say largely unschoolers because my children do math out of a textbook almost daily. The older they have become, I’ve realized that more advanced math and formulas aren’t something that you necessarily find in everyday life, yet are (sadly) often fundamental for college entrance exams. Everyday I strive to immerse my children in stimulating or enriching environments, even if we are at home and not on the road traveling. If we are at home, I make sure we have a stack of library books available. A supply of arts and craft materials. Paper, pens, crayons, yarn, glue. We go outside a lot. If we are on the road, we take advantage of museums, classes, events, activities wherever we happen to be. We go outside even more.
By allowing my children to primarily follow their interests, I’m amazed at what I’ve come to see from them. They are in love with learning. They all have powerfully different interests. Most surprising to me is that they have an interest in learning that I never had, despite my positive school experiences, love of school, and top grades. They also retain what they learn!
My 13 year is deeply connected to music studies, writing, and athletics. My 10 year old is fascinated by Popular Mechanics Magazines, the Periodic Table, computer programming/coding, and plants. My 8 year old loves math and art. My six year old loves nature and science.
Trusting yourself as a teacher, trusting your child as a learner are the most important things you can do.
I think it takes time for most families to discover trust with the homeschooling process–often more so with unschooling. If you are thinking about homeschooling or have started homeschooling, but have yet to find your rhythm, be kind to yourself. Give yourself space to parent. Give your child space to be free.
Like magic, the learning will happen.
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