What is Unschooling and does it Work? My Opinion

What is Unschooling? My definition would be that a child is expected to learn the skills and information he or she needs by simply living a life of exploring and following whatever interests come naturally to them based on their personalities and aptitudes and developmental stages. For example, a toddler will naturally want to touch , taste, and explore everything so all you have to do is provide age appropriate resources within their reach . Then as the child grows and can ask for what they want , you provide the books and materials needed to learn the skills and information they are interested in. The parents are more facilitators than teachers. Some subjects may go untaught completely while others are explored in detail. The assumption that the child will instinctively learn what he needs to know.

In my 23 years of homeschooling ( I sometimes forget how long it’s been, but I started in 1996 or so) , I’ve come to see that this type of homeschooling works for SOME kids, at SOME ages, in CERTAIN conditions.

I started homeschooling during a period when natural parenting , breastfeeding, co-sleeping, baby wearing, baby led weaning, homemade baby food, etc, etc, were very popular. Being a stay home mom had become more popular again and there was a rise in parents wanting to give their children a more natural, less structured childhood. Spanking became less popular and larger families more common, although it was not a huge cultural shift .

During this era there was a spectrum of homeschooling styles from “doing school at home (designated school room in the house, desks, packaged private school textbooks, tests, grades) to more relaxed styles like Charlotte Mason and unit studies and moms creating their own curriculum, and all the way to the opposite end , Unschooling.

I was very influenced by authors and leaders in the homeschooling world and followed the ones that suited my personality and beliefs about children at the time. Unschooling sounded so good! I wanted to believe that I could trust my children to learn naturally and organically without any coercion. However I also wanted them to be able to function in the greater society and world. So based on those two desires I tried to combine learning by self-directed interest with teaching them basic skills like reading , math, history, writing, spelling, etc. . My boys were interested in typical boy things like skateboarding, guitars, Legos, building forts out of random materials, playing with toy guns, trains, cars, making messes, watching cartoons and eating . I soon discovered that my kids would rather play all day than learn those basic skills! So even though I loved the ideas in John Holt’s books, I wondered how this could possibly work in real life.

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Thomas the Tank Engine !

I tried to keep learning fun. In the early years , 5- 9 years or so, my expectations of written work were very low and I avoided what I considered busy work. I did not even begin trying to teach my kids to read until first grade and was in no rush.  As a kid, I personally loved books, worksheets, playing school, but my boys were different so I didn’t push.  I had so much going on in my daily life with frequent pregnancies and long term breastfeeding, lack of sleep, and also babysitting other kids , that we didn’t do a lot of “school” . What I did is read aloud daily and at bedtime and provided plenty of art supplies, pretend play , creative building toys ( Legos !!) , and lots of park time , field trips, educational videos, books galore, puzzles, dress up , Little People and action figures. They also learned a lot from early computer games like Reader Rabbit and The Learning Company. Windows and the internet were primitive but still offered a lot of fun and my oldest son was only two years old when he learned to use the computer. And he’s still using it!

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Those were fun years ! I have no regrets for not pushing academic subjects early. I did buy workbooks and such but if they weren’t interested, I was willing to let it go . The funny thing is even though I feel like I didn’t push it, my older kids actually did more workbooks than my two younger ones at those ages.

As I got older, Grace was born, we moved, had more babies, less money , things started going off the rails. My health was suffering more with each baby, my husband was depressed, 911 happened, things just got rough around the year 2000. But I was not willing to give up my kids to public school.

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Three day old Eli . Me looking rough after c-section. 

Back to the topic of Unschooling. It was during this stressful period ( that hasn’t ended) that I saw that Unschooling as a theory sounds good but doesn’t work in practice, at least I believe you need certain conditions to make it work.

Those conditions include: an environment where learning, exploration, curiosity are a priority. Financial resources. Parents that demonstrate that learning is valued . Emotionally healthy parents and children. Community resources. Limited or no access to addictive video games and technology. The last one is sometimes debated , but as a mom to video gamers who would rather play games than eat or do anything else, I say “Don’t buy them!”. Kids who play games regularly are unlikely to want to read , create, explore or do much self interest learning. When my boys were young , it wasn’t as much of a problem , but today’s games are very different and today’s culture is different. I strongly urge parents to think twice before buying children phones, iPads, Nintendo, etc.

I’ve made many mistakes in my years of homeschooling but the biggest one was not “making them do it” when I should have. I confess that I do not like making my kids mad at me. I have a bad habit of letting them slide when I shouldn’t and then getting mad when I should have not let it go that far. So “angry mom” often had to come out to get them to stay on task . It was easier to just blow off the school day. I’ve learned better skills now but I think “making them do it ” is still the hardest part of homeschooling for me and most moms. I put that in quotes because I remember reading that phrase years ago in a “how to homeschool” book. I should have studied that chapter better! If you come from a background without good discipline and rules, you will have to learn how to make them do it . Avoiding conflict is not a good reason to choose Unschooling. The only reason I’d recommend this extremely unstructured method is if a child is very self motivated and has specific ideas and interests. As long as your child is actually learning something, and has the basic skills to pursue his interests, I think it’s great. But neglecting to teach them and calling it Unschooling is wrong. They will find themselves grown up and at a disadvantage to other adults who have years of foundational knowledge and skills . I can see the holes in the education of my adult children caused by not pushing them harder on certain subjects . Thankfully they do have the intelligence and skills to teach themselves whatever they need as an adult.

In conclusion, it’s my opinion that pure Unschooling is probably not going to work well for most families. Homeschooling is not about leaving kids to their own devices. It’s not just doing your thing while they do theirs. I think my sons will be fine with the mixture of relaxed learning and actual teaching they got, but I would be more consistent about ‘making them do’ certain topics. Whatever you choose, do it to help your kids, not because it sounds fun or easy. Changing methods mid-stream is fine if you find that things aren’t going as expected. And be prepared to change it up as they grow and can handle more difficult subjects. The working world is going to expect a certain level of competence, independence and group skills, knowledge of basic subjects, and thinking abilities, and I believe that homeschooling in general is the best option ,if you have the desire and patience and resources.

15 comments

  1. Good piece PK, I like these posts you do, I find them informative and very relatable (unlike your marathon posts, but just because running does not interest me).

    To be honest, what you highlight are some of my trepidations when I consider homeschooling my kids. I think my biggest fear, is how to separate the dad part from the teacher part. Since, I can be quite the task oriented professional, I know that this can be quite challenging for kids to grasp, let alone adhere to for any duration.

    I tend to have two separate personalities when it comes to work vs. home and I don’t know how exactly I would create that bridge between the two. Primarily because my home is our sanctuary and my work is something I do to support my family.

    Nonetheless PK, I did find this post very insightful, thank you for sharing and being frank with your real experiences when it come to the fantasy of homeschooling vs the real deal.

    • I’m glad you liked it. I understand those concerns and it’s a very real challenge to learn to balance your own personality with the goal of homeschooling your own kids. In the current climate of school’s teaching children how to masturbate and that gender is not real, along with the many other things that I disagree with that are taught in public schools, I feel that the effort to overcome the obstacles to homeschooling are worth it.

      • I’m right there with you, but thank God my family and I live in what some might refer to as a “backwards” area with more deep rooted traditional values. I know there are always a few “insurgents” that tend to infiltrate the local school from time to time, but we are a little slower round these parts. The school board here hasn’t forgotten where they came from.

        Just two years ago, apparently someone complained about the football team along with the spectators prayed to God before each game, the school board stopped all prayer from that point, until local outrage and protest brought prayer to God back.

        I know it’s only a matter of time, and eventually I may decide to homeschool. It is always in the back of my mind, and posts like yours give me perspective.

        A question, did homeschooling become easier as your kids got older?

      • I’m glad to hear you’re in a backwards area. Lol. As you know I’m in Texas and they just passed a sex ed curriculum in Austin that includes controversial topics. As for getting easier, not really, but there’s light at the end of this tunnel. Getting teenage boys to do Algebra and Biology when it’s not their real interest is quite a chore. But we do have some fun and great conversations and I’m thankful for the time we have together.

      • I miss the days when gay wasn’t considered divine or normal and the gays stayed in their own communities. Ever since they began to get more power and spread nationwide, America has been worse ever since.

        Back then, people knew where they belonged and where they didn’t.

      • Right . They’re being used like ethnic groups as pawns to push the progressive humanist agenda . Many gays are actually fiscal conservatives and not seeking special treatment. They just want to be left alone .

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