I admit that I used to think it was bonkers. School with no curriculum or teacher-directed learning? Seriously? I used to think the concept of unschooling was ineffective — until I met an adult who’d been unschooled. He held down a stable job as a fisheries scientist and told me that he and his siblings taught themselves to read, using Charles Dickens, in a matter of weeks when he was ten. “We got sick of our mom always having to read to us,” he explained. He eventually learned everything he needed to know. His mother read to them for hours and hours. They chose what to learn. They chose how to learn it.
He turned out fine.
Since my children have been maximally stressed by COVID-19, we’ve been unable to keep up our regular relaxed homeschooling routine. For a while, I thought we were taking a break. I realized, slowly, that we were, instead, unschooling our kids. They were learning plenty. They just weren’t learning according to a set curriculum with textbooks, workbooks, and a plan I’d written down.
What Is Unschooling?
Unschooling is basically a form of homeschooling education that focuses on a child’s interests, rather than a structured academic curriculum. It is child-led learning, rather than adult-directed teaching. It is grounded on the idea that children are motivated to learn when it involves something they’re interested in.
My kids, given the chance, will spend their time engaged in activities that are at least vaguely educational: my sons read voraciously in nearly every subject from history to science to fiction. They play complicated board games that involve math; they ask smart questions that we spend a lot of time discussing (“Why do clouds float?” led to a long meteorological lecture recently; if we don’t know the answer to something, we Google).
In a nutshell unschooling involves a child being active and following their natural interests. For example, my middle son is obsessed with amphibians, so we give him books on toads to read. He devours college-level books about them, and can identify nearly-identical toad species. My oldest loves Bigfoot; we give him material about cryptids (unknown and possibly mythological creatures) meant for adults. He reads them and explains them to us. He looks at maps and tells us where we’d likely find a Bigfoot. When he wants to learn about Ancient Greece, we give him books and buy him LEGOs to build battle scenes. He’s also used them to build accurate temples to the goddess Athena.
When he got really into Moby Dick recently — after I read him part of the adult version, he watched the movie, and picked up lots of cultural references — unbidden, he made a LEGO model of Ahab (complete with wooden leg), Ishmael, and the white whale:
This doesn’t mean that we don’t guide their learning. We round them up to watch documentaries, to live chat with zoos, aquariums, and scientists (which are in abundance right now with COVID-19 going on), to listen to us read books (sometimes I just read them beautiful prose, like Craig Childer’s narratives about the desert), or to help train our puppy. I might call my youngest in to read with me. Unschooling means that they choose their own learning based on their interests — and we help to guide them.
How This Benefits Our Kids
Right now, unschooling had the immediate benefit of taking a lot of pressure off our children: they don’t feel like they have to do “formal” school, so they’re much more relaxed — important in a time like this where they may be under more stress than usual. But as an educational system, unschooling lets children “follow their passions,” so they’re much more excited about learning, and go much more in-depth into the subject they choose to learn about. They stay excited about “schooling” — which I put in quotation marks because it’s indistinguishable from life; “learning” is a better term — and are less likely to beg for time on their tablets or the TV. If one of them does, the others are quick to suggest alternatives.
As ThoughtCo says, children are more likely to retain the material they learn of their own volition; moreover, they build on their own natural talents and tend to have stronger self-motivation (my kids seem more likely than others, for example, to find ways to amuse themselves when turned loose, for example). They even find ways to compensate for their difficulties on their own: we got our oldest, who has dysgraphia, the Facebook Messenger Kids app; the predictive text lets him write accurately and is helping him learn the keyboard. These two adaptive technologies will help him throughout his lifetime.
Will We Keep Up Unschooling?
I’m not sure how much of this we’ll retain when COVID-19 has finished and we’re back to the real world. I see us retaining a lot of our schooling in reading, science, social studies, and even writing — as in, I’ll install the Messenger app and let them talk to their friends; I’ll have them write about what they’re reading to people and exchange actual letters with pen-pals to offer a little more structure (so maybe we’ll end up about half-unschooling in writing: as a writer myself, they will learn to write well). I do see us returning to formal work in math and grammar — a lack of both makes me nervous.
I also feel like if we’re going to do this on a long-term basis, my kids need more structure than they currently have; unschooling families, as ThoughtCo mentions, seem to have a lot of structure built in, and we don’t right now. The kids seem more comfortable in a relaxed environment, and we retain that for the sake of their comfort during this difficult time.
But in general, unschooling is working well for us right now. I document what we do in my plan books. I don’t lie. I say how their activities relate to the subjects they’re supposed to learn, and by and large, they add up. Unschooling is possible. Unschooling is doable. Children like to learn, and they will learn if you give them the chance. I’ve always believed that. That belief is affirmed, in my house, every single day.