We Are An Unschooling Family––Here's What That Means

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
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Everyone is bustling around with their virtual learning schedules. Some people are choosing to homeschool; they’re fretting over curricula. Others are sending kids to school and (understandably) worrying about the virus. We homeschooled before the pandemic; traditional school it wasn’t for us. I don’t like the idea that my kids need to know certain things at certain times. I think children learn when they’re ready; I think children should decide (for the most part) what they learn and how they learn it. So we do what’s called unschooling — and so far, it’s worked out great for our family.

What Is It?

As The Natural Child Project says, unschooling isn’t so much a way of teaching as a way of life. A parent trusts that a child wants to learn and pursue knowledge. Unschooling is a philosophy that believes kids, when given the choice, would rather learn than not learn. They would rather pursue knowledge than do nothing. Therefore, unschooling gives them the freedom to learn what they want to learn, trusting that the child will follow their interests, and in doing so, will learn what they “need to know.”

Many unschoolers don’t even directly teach their children to read. My friend Evan didn’t read until twelve, when he and his siblings became sick of their mother reading to them and decided to read to themselves. They used Charles Dickens to do it. Evan is now a successful biologist. I chose to teach my children to read— unschooling is not one size fits all— but they learned at different ages. My middle child wasn’t ready until much later than his siblings, and that was/is perfectly fine.

But I don’t plan a reading curriculum. My kids pick their books. Because they pick, they’re invested in learning to read and don’t see it as a chore. My middle son might read Dogman one day, but the next, he’s diving into The Amazing World of Dinosaurs: An Illustrated Journey Through the Mesozoic Era, a paleoart book probably written on a college level. He’s capable of it. Why make him read something “on his level” that he won’t enjoy instead?

Unschooling Isn’t Educational Neglect

We put a lot of effort into helping our kids learn— just as much effort as people put into helping their children with a curriculum, or doing virtual learning. Our children’s learning is self-directed. However, we work with them to help them learn. Not necessarily to teach, but to guide.

Take some of our current science projects as an example. My kids, for reasons unknown, have gotten really into chemistry: molecular bond, atoms, elements, etc. A traditional school says they shouldn’t learn about this until high school. But we made molecules, and learned about valance levels, and talked about protons and neutrons. We’ve just ordered a new molecule modeling kit. We don’t force them to learn about this. We present the materials. We show them, when they ask, how things work, and they go as far (or not) as they want with them.

My kids are also working on giant maps, which were supposed to be social studies, but which have turned into discussions on the water cycle, desertification, and biology. They’ve decided to make field guides showcasing the biodiversity on their continents. That’s writing I never asked for. I’ll make comments like, “We always put a period at the end of a sentence,” or “we need a comma here because…” But these things develop organically.

They come when my kids are ready and receptive to hearing them.

A lack of testing and a more freeform approach to lesson planning doesn’t mean we don’t work hard with them. My husband spent two hours playing microscopes this morning. That was fun. That was also “school.”

Why Unschooling Often Puts “School” in Quotation Marks

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Everything we do is learning.

My kids learn constantly. They go to the river with my husband, an amateur biologist: they learn about all kinds of science, and since the river had nearby paleolithic camps, social studies. I’m using the educational language we’re used to, which divides education into clear-cut subjects generally learned separately at a specific time (for example, “We do school from 10 to 1 pm.”).

When my sons read books on their own, that’s school. When they sit down to watch Cosmos at breakfast, that counts as school. When they play microscopes or go to the river on a weekend— that’s “school” too. We believe everything can be a learning experience, and “count” things as “school” other people might not: making salsa, for example.

My kids are much happier learning through play like this than sitting at a desk.

But Yes, I’m A Little Stricter Than Some

Unschooling exists on a continuum more than on a yes-or-no basis. We mostly unschool. But when it comes to math, my kids won’t learn it on their own (at least basic addition facts, for example), so we do a computer program to help with that. We skip the stuff that isn’t relevant (yet) and race through parts they grasp quickly. Other things take more time. That’s okay. We have plenty of it.

I also taught my kids to read. Some people don’t. But I felt like I wanted to hand that ability to my kids as soon as possible.

We also use *gasp* workbooks sometimes.

Unschooling Throws Out The Educational Yardstick

But for the most part, I let my kids decide what to learn and when to learn it. They prefer it that way. They’re leaps and bounds “ahead” in some subjects. They “lag” in others by current school standards. We’re not worried about it. If they decide to go to formal college, they’ll be motivated to learn what they need to before they enroll, and we are happy to support them in those endeavors.

Unschooling means less stress for everyone. I don’t envy other parents. They’re always worrying about their kids’ education, especially right now. Are they doing enough? Is their child staying on grade level? Will they get into this or that program?

Because we have no artificial metric, we have very little stress. We enjoy learning. If the state demands I call that school, well, I suppose it “counts as school.” But mostly, we offer educational opportunities and our children take them or leave them. When they take them, they run. It’s amazing to watch.

It’s not for everyone. Some need a strict curriculum to stay on task. Some kids need professional interventions. Some people don’t want to teach their kids at home, and some people simply don’t have the opportunity. Different educational approaches work for different families. But unschooling works for us. In fact, we love it.

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