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Unschooling 101

Unschooling may be one of the more controversial topics in the world of homeschooling for a couple of reasons:

First, this method is so very different from how many of us grew up that (at least at first) it’s hard to trust. Second, it’s a method that is often very misunderstood.


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It’s not a method that will work for every family, and that’s ok; however, Unschooling works incredibly well for some, so it’s worth investigating. And even if you decide not to jump in the deep end with this method, there may be facets of it that are well worth implementing in your homeschool.

Those facets (or the full method) might just be the answer you’re looking for.

So let’s get started!

What is Unschooling?

Unschooling, also called “interest-driven” or “child-led” learning, was one of the movements that spurred the birth of modern homeschooling. It is the brainchild of John Holt, a teacher and educational reformer of the mid to late-20th century.

Holt started out as a teacher at rigorous schools, and he was excellent at what he did; however, as his years in the classroom went on, he noticed a huge disconnect between the learning he was looking to inspire in his students and the actual results. This troubled him greatly.

Holt’s Journey into Unschooling

In the late 1960s, Holt set out to study this disconnect and possible solutions, and he worked for several years to try to enact reform in the public school system. Sadly, his efforts were met with less-than-stellar responses.

So, he turned directly to families. He showed them how they could teach their own children to learn naturally and love it. His books, How Children Fail and How Children Learn, have now been designated as classics.

Boiled down to its foundation, Unschooling is the idea that children are naturally wired to learn and will do so when given the freedom to do so. This method gives children a “say” in what, how, and when they learn, capitalizing on their natural development and inclination.

How Children Learn, 50th anniversary edition (A Merloyd Lawrence Book)How Children Learn, 50th anniversary edition (A Merloyd Lawrence Book)Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book Of HomeschoolingTeach Your Own: The John Holt Book Of HomeschoolingHow Children Fail (Classics in Child Development)How Children Fail (Classics in Child Development)Learning All The TimeLearning All The TimeBest Of John HoltBest Of John Holt

Needless to say, it was a revolutionary idea that helped spur a way of life – homeschooling – for millions of families. However, even 40-50 years later, Unschooling is largely misunderstood. Some people love the idea, others are terrified by it.

What is Unschooling Not?

Because Unschooling does not really have a specific blueprint to follow, there are a lot of misconceptions about it. Instead of describing exactly what it is, it may be easier to describe what it is not.

  • It’s not a mindset that allows a child to have full autonomy over everything in their lives, taking the parent out of the equation.
  • It’s not allowing your child to do nothing but play video games and watch cartoons all day. (Although, if your child is a budding game designer or cartoonist, they might do so on a regular basis for research and comparison.)
  • It’s not letting your child off the hook, academically speaking, never requiring them to do anything they don’t “want” or “like” to do.

Unschooling is simply the idea of allowing your child to help determine what, how, when, and why they learn, at whatever level they are capable of. (Obviously, this varies by age.)

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Rather than requiring your child to learn skills they are not developmentally ready for because the teacher’s manual says they ought to, an unschooling mentality allows for the idea that children develop at their own pace…and taking advantage of that is likely to help them learn.

But What Does It Actually Look Like?

Well, that’s a hard question to answer…because the answer is different for every family. In our family, it even looked different at different stages. Essentially, though, it was a mixture of working with my son and anticipating his needs.

I worked with him to determine what he would learn, when, and how. When he was young, he worked well with Unit Studies, but he often wanted to take the subjects far beyond what any particular study provided.

I would just ask him what he wanted to learn about, and he would name off topics – anything from human anatomy to dinosaurs to the difference between Egyptian and Greek mythology – and we would work together to set a basic schedule.

Then, I would get to work. I researched, ordered tons of books from the library, made lists of websites and Youtube videos (this was long before Netflix came on the scene), and found experiments and craft projects that fit our store of supplies. Then I typed it up or wrote it down (whatever helped the creative juices flow at the time) and had everything ready to go.

Letting Your Child Have the Freedom to Learn

I found early on that my son isn’t the type of learner to stick to a lesson plan simply because it’s there. He’s a voracious learner who thinks in very out-of-the-box ways. He sees connections and patterns that most other people don’t.

It sounds like he’d be every teacher’s dream (and he is really fun to teach). But trying to lesson plan for him was, at times, like trying to align the cosmos.

So, I gave up on structuring out his studies day by day and learned to anticipate what might work. Then, I made it available for him to “feast” on. And he did.

If a library book that I picked got an “ehh…” reaction, it went back to the library. If it was one that he wanted to read over and over again, or if it had a ton of cool projects that he wanted to try, it got renewed as many times as the library would let us.

I kept a fairly well-stocked supply of art supplies, odds, and ends that he could use for just about anything, and he did. I bookmarked sites that he could safely peruse and showed him how to access the folders.

We played review games, made up stories, and spent lots of time reading aloud and discussing. He made tons of lapbooks and notebooks, because they fit his learning needs at that time.

Unschooling Older Kids

As he got older, I allowed him to choose his areas of study and curriculum options. A couple of times a year, we would sit down with a whiteboard and figure out what he wanted to study for each subject. I determined the overall subjects – we are going to do math, English, history, science, Bible, and a foreign language, along with whatever electives he chose.

But within those categories, he pretty much got free reign. He told me what he wanted to do. I found curriculums that met our budget and his requirements, and he chose the ones he wanted.

And he almost always chose something that was far more creative and rigorous than what I would have planned. Odd how that happens!

Unschooling as a Way of Life

Today, as a senior in college, this is a habit he’s kept. He knows full well how to learn in a university setting, but he still has his side projects.

They might range from studying the messaging of Disney movies over the past several decades via Youtube clips (which is really kind of fascinating, once you dig into it) to unwinding from finals with downloaded lectures on sociopolitical theory. (Not even kidding – it’s what he finds relaxing. Works for me!)

However, how we implemented Unschooling will probably look completely different from how anyone else does. And that’s kind of the point of the method. We did what we did because it worked for us. It met his specific learning needs and was doable for me as a teacher.

Your child’s learning needs will likely be different, your family is different, and that’s perfectly fine. Do what works.

Resources for Unschooling

First, be sure to check out my Pinterest boards. I keep them updated daily and check every link before pinning.You know you’re going to get a steady stream of the good stuff!

Here are some books to check out on Unschooling, for further research:

Unschooling Rules: 55 Ways to Unlearn What We Know About Schools and Rediscover EducationUnschooling Rules: 55 Ways to Unlearn What We Know About Schools and Rediscover EducationThe Unschooling Handbook: How to Use the Whole World As Your Child's Classroom (Prima Home Learning Library)The Unschooling Handbook: How to Use the Whole World As Your Child’s Classroom (Prima Home Learning Library)Home Grown: Adventures in Parenting off the Beaten Path, Unschooling, and Reconnecting with the Natural WorldHome Grown: Adventures in Parenting off the Beaten Path, Unschooling, and Reconnecting with the Natural WorldUnschooling Works!!!: Using self-directed learning to homeschool our childrenUnschooling Works!!!: Using self-directed learning to homeschool our childrenBig Book of UnschoolingBig Book of UnschoolingThe Unschooling Journey: A Field GuideThe Unschooling Journey: A Field Guide

Wrapping It Up

I’m curious: have you ever tried, or considered trying Unschooling? What was your experience? What questions do you have about it? Comment below, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Related Posts:

A Beginner’s Guide to Traditional Homeschooling

Beginner’s Guide to Classical Homeschooling

The Beginner’s Guide to Charlotte Mason

Beginner’s Guide to Unit Studies (+ FREE Unit Study Planner!)

A Beginner’s Guide to Eclectic Homeschooling










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