Sunday, May 22, 2011

What is Unschooling?

If you asked me (and you DID, didn't you?) I would tell you that Unschooling, simply put, is the act of keeping my children out of school and not deliberately doing anything at home that looks or feels like school.

But any family who is Unschooling knows that there is so much more to it than that.  Some emails and comments I've received are specifically about finding a happy balance between Homeschooling and Unschooling.  And some are questions about how I know my children are learning when I'm neither teaching nor testing them.  These are the questions I will attempt to answer.

You can't stop them from learning.
Children (and even adults) are constantly learning.  Every conversation, every action, every observance serves as either a reinforcement of knowledge already learned or it becomes new knowledge.  In children under the age of 5, every aspect of their environment becomes their schema--the basis by which they will interpret every future interaction and event for the rest of their lives.

So my children, ages 7yrs, 5 yrs, 3yrs and 10 mos, are constantly learning.  From the way I interact with cashiers and neighbours and (Grrrr!) dog-owners they are learning social skills.  From the way I take care of the baby they are learning compassion.  From the way we prepare our food they are learning a healthy lifestyle.  From the books we read they are learning that becoming literate is a normal aspect of modern life.  From having their own Money-Jars they are learning that once money is spent it is pretty much gone forever.

You get the picture.  I don't have to do a lesson in money management with a 7-year-old because she is pretty much learning money-management on the fly, so to speak. 

It's all about trust.
I am working under the assumption that my children are capable of learning EVERYTHING that they need to learn to function in our society as they grow up.  They learned to walk and talk without specifically being taught, but just by being around people who walk and talk.  They've learned to feed themselves and to choose healthy foods simply by being exposed to healthy options.  They are constantly finding new activities to try and new skills to master:  riding a bike, swimming, printing lower case letters, inputting a phone number, kneading bread, starting the washing machine, spreading butter on toast. 

These are all equally important skills for their ages and maturity.  We don't rate their skills and find literacy to be more important than health or gross motor skills to be more important than social skills.  And we don't expect them to be the same:  Holly could talk in sentences at 18 months, Anna could print her name before she was 3 years old, Jasmine could swim underwater at 30 months.  So what!, we say.  We don't compare their accomplishments to each other or to other kids' skills.

As much as possible, we trust them to make their own decisions, not just about learning but also about the most personal aspects of their lives:  what they eat and wear, where and when they go to sleep, who they want to be around.  If they choose no coats on a cold day, they'll figure that out.  If they don't eat supper, they'll be hungry before bed.  If they don't want to play together or with other kids, we suggest or provide alternate activities.

When I say as much as possible I am really referring to my own inconsistent ability to LET GO.  I have to choose not to be a control freak.  Obviously, on issues of safety we offer advice or restrictions.  And sometimes there are places we have to go or people we have to see that are not of their choosing.  (This is really rare.  I'm thinking of 3 funerals I've had to attend in the past year when we made alternate arrangements for the children.) 

There is no end to unschooling.
When I think about what I hope my children learn I have to examine my definition of success.  I would suggest that success (as an adult) is doing what you love and being content with the lifestyle afforded in the pursuit of what you love.  In other words, obtaining a degree is not a measure of success, especially if, like both me and Partner-Guy, your degree does nothing but open the door to a career that you hate.

When you adopt an unschooling lifestyle, you decide that you will learn whatever you need to learn at whatever phase of your life you face a challenge.  Most of us do this anyway.  For example, Partner-Guy has recently learned to change the oil in his car and my father recently learned how to bake cookies and bread.  Does is matter that they didn't learn those skills in school?  Of course not.

For children, the need to learn a new skill is the same as for an adult.  We intend to get a piano in case any of the children are interested in learning to play it.  And if no one (besides me!) wants to learn, that is fine.  If one of them is interested and excels and wants formal lessons, we will get formal piano lessons.  We are open to the possibility of learning whatever they are interested in pursuing.

Get started today.
1.  Trust that the needs of your child are authentic and act accordingly. Your child is right.

2.  Get the whole idea of 'fostering independence' out of your head. Your child wants to be independent. He/she doesn't need to be pushed to get there.

3.  Do your work without nagging your children to help you. They are already busy. Learning.

4.  Be selective about who is around your child. Don't be deceived by the media-endorsed idea that you need to be around a lot of other parents and kids on a regular basis. Limit your regular contact with other families to those who share the same values that you do.

5.  Know your values and live them everyday. If you value a fiscally responsible government but you can't live within your budget, make a change. If you send money to Haiti but you won't make eye contact with panhandlers, make a change.

6.  Challenge yourself to do something outside of your comfort zone every week, every month and every year. If you're an avid reader, don't challenge yourself to read 100 books this year. Instead, challenge yourself to write a review on for every book you read. If you're a good knitter, challenge yourself to learn how to sew.

7.  Make your home child-friendly. This is not the same as making your home child-proof. Don't have areas of restricted access in your home or rooms with restricted activities. Put toys and books where they are easily accessed and don't flip out about getting everything picked up and put away all the time. If you are going to embrace a life of freedom and joy then your home should not have artificial rules created for the convenience of the parents.

8.  If there are particular skills that you want your child to learn, make sure your child sees you doing that skill. Cooking. Folding laundry. Reading. Writing. Growing vegetables. Playing the piano.  Building bird houses. Don't talk about important skills; do them.

9.  Be honest about your choice to unschool with those who care about you. If you try to hide or gloss over your choice then your friends and family will automatically start to question you and you will get defensive. Be confident and honest.

10.  Remember that Unschooling is not something you do. It is a way of life. A way of relating. A way of being authentic with your children. Unschooling is a culture that you create in your family. It is a minority culture co-existing with the majority mainstream culture. You have to live the culture, not just practise it.


  1. Excellent post! This really sums everything up beautifully. I have a voracious love of learning despite my formal schooling. My kids were born with it as well and that is one of the reasons I want to unschool-so that they can keep that passion. It's my central goal, actually.

    The really hard part for me is to trust and let go. We are just beginning our journey. It helps immensely to read experiences from parents who are further along the path.

  2. When I first learned about un-schooling, it fit perfectly with my very strong beliefs and opinions, yet went against most of what I had been taught my entire life.

    It is very difficult to un-learn all that I have learnt, and been taught about schooling.

    It's not so easy to simply let go and trust; to allow myself to truly live and think in an un-schooling way.

    I have researched and read all I could get my hands on about un-schooling, and can not ignore the tugging at my heart, the strong gut knowing that it is right for my children, our family.

    To choose to live your life truly free, and not simply follow the herd, is not as easy as it seems. But, I have found that in time, my inner voice became louder and louder.

    Every day is a learning experience, yet I know I am following the right path

  3. Please consider submitting something about homeschooling to the Carnival of Homeschooling. If you are interested, here are the instructions.

    If this week is bad for you, you are always welcome to submit to future carnivals.

    If a "blog carnival" is a new term, this might help.

    Here is the archive of previous carnivals

    Participating in a blog carnvial is a good way to get more exposure for your blog.

    Thank you for your consideration.