What is unschooling?

What is unschooling?

Learn what unschooling is and if it may be the right approach for your family.

Photo Credit: Yvonne Chamberlain
By Michelle Gaut

Unschooling is a term that can mean a couple of different things. Primarily, it refers to a type of homeschooling where the student is allowed and encouraged to learn at his own pace, according to his own interests and desires. It can also fall somewhere in the middle on the homeschooling continuum, meaning merely that the homeschooling family does not follow a set curriculum.

The idea of unschooling originated with a man by the name of John Holt, who had a strong belief that children learn best when they are exposed to a rich environment, as well as being around adults who enjoy sharing their knowledge with children. He believed that just as children learn to walk and talk naturally, they can also master academic subjects in the same manner, by absorbing what is around them, and with the help of their parents, by integrating the subject matter into their everyday lives. John Holt has written several books, including “How Children Learn,” “How Children Fail,” and “Teach Your Own.”

What unschooling can look like is children learning to read of their own initiative at age nine, for example, while having an extraordinary level of knowledge about Egyptian history at age seven. The justification for this is that the child will eventually learn to read, so why not wait until the child is showing an interest in reading and is ready to learn, meanwhile allowing him to pursue his other interests? Often, the end result can be the same. However, because of the very nature of homeschooling, few studies have been conducted on unschooling and using this sort of approach, so it cannot be given a blanket recommendation. What works for some children and families may not work for yours. Unschooling is just one of the many options that homeschooling offers.

One possible problem that has the potential to interfere with unschooling today is the plethora of video games, computer bulletin boards, television and other media that entice children’s attention away from other, more academic pursuits. Most likely, if an unschooling approach were to work well, it would be best to keep the child’s home free of these influences.

Homeschooling families who choose unschooling should have very active lives that allow their children enrichment at every turn. Unschooling will not turn out well if the family leads an insular life and does not expose the child to different environments and ideas. An extreme ideal is the family who travels to different countries frequently, exposing their children to different cultures, histories and languages. Many such families may not intend to unschool, but the effect can be the same, with the children learning four languages by the time they are ten years old, without ever encountering a formal curriculum.

An example of how unschooling works in the child’s home is an instance of the child and parent preparing a meal together. In the course of doing so, they may need to go shopping, thus teaching price comparisons and the differences between products. Environmental print will also come into play. Or they may obtain their food from a garden, which the child will have helped to plant; learning about earthworms, compost and plant growth without ever having read about it in a book. Once the meal is ready to be prepared, there will be the matter of fractions, as recipes may need to be divided or doubled, and measuring cups and spoons are utilized. The chemistry of baking powder may be explained, and the child will almost certainly ask to break the eggs himself, learning a practical skill in the meantime. Children have millions of questions waiting to be asked at any given moment, and each opportunity for them to do so is a learning experience for them. One does not have to sit down at the kitchen table with a workbook in order to teach their own children. In fact, Holt would argue that by doing so, parents are replicating the structure of school in their homes, which should not be the goal of homeschooling according to his philosophy.

Many parents try a combination of homeschooling approaches, including unschooling. The important thing is to discover what works the best for you and your family.

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