Unschooling: To School or Not to School?

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Unschooling…..Something I’ve debated about even mentioning here! If you haven’t heard from it, unschooling is a type of homeschool that follows the interest of the child. It is a natural experience-based learning. There is no curriculum, no worksheets, no classes…..the kids are encouraged to explore and learn on their own. The child makes their own decisions on what they feel like doing without interference. Do people actually do this? Yes- and it is a growing movement!
college student studying
I personally like the “idea” of unschooling, but as I began to research more on it it seems that there are different levels of unschooling. When I think of unschooling right now in our house, it is basically what those of us at home with preschoolers do. To a certain extent, my son, who is now 4 years old, is at home all day and can choose what he wants to do. Play games, go outside, maybe go to the zoo, color, paint, etc. Now imagine having that freedom all the time without a 7-3 school day schedule.
The most extreme of unschoolers are called “radical unschoolers”. I will be very upfront in saying I am not sure how I feel about this extremity. I can’t imagine the monstrosities that would occur in my own house if I decided to step back and not parent my children! In addition to no curriculums, the child, whether 3 or 13 makes ALL of their own decisions. They eat whatever they want, whenever they want, are able to stay up as late or go to bed as early as they want, and have no demands or consequences placed on them.
The unschooling that I DO like, however, for SOME children (note*- I do not think that this version of unschooling is suitable for all children in place of traditional/home schooling!) can bring amazing results. I’m reluctant to publicly admit this because I know many parents will either jump on the bandwagon claiming it’s a good choice for their child, OR get angry with me saying only traditional school is best. My children are still young (4 and 2), but already I can see that school for them will be very different.
My oldest (4 yrs) would absolutely hands down thrive in unschool (not radical unschool**). He has stayed home with me and never attended school yet. I bought him a Hooked on Phonics set and some workbooks, but we have never forced any type of “school time” or curriculum with him. It sits on a shelf and when he asks for it I’ll pull it down for him. Last year he self taught himself the alphabet, phonics, how to read (he’s now almost above a 1st grade reading level), and how to swim among other things. Without instruction from us. We guided him, and we answered questions and encouraged him to view educational materials, but he is a self-taught learner and does not do well if I make him sit and practice worksheets.
school bus stock
In my experience this extent of learning is not typical. You do not see a lot of 3 year olds teaching themselves to read and excel far beyond their age, although it can and does happen. At 2 and 3 I did not intend to sit my son down and instruct him in bookwork. Much to my surprise he is quite the self-learner! My youngest child on the other hand, although young, will certainly not be this way!
It is no secret that preschoolers learn by exploring, by doing, and by asking questions. This is no different in our household. Although we have no school regiment or curriculum, I highly encourage educational movies, games, activities, outdoor play, etc. What will I do for my oldest for school next year? That is a very good question!! One we are still trying to figure out to be honest!
Children are not all the same, and all learn in different ways. Some thrive on worksheets, some thrive by the hands-on approach. Even children in the same family should not always have the same approach to school. It is OK to send your children to different schools or use different schooling methods. We will evaluate each of our children and find the BEST way for each of them to learn.
I’d love some feedback- what do you think about unschooling? Does YOUR family unschool? Are you radical unschoolers? Share with me your thoughts- I’d love to hear any experiences you may have with unschooling! As always on this site, feel free to share your honest opinion but please be kind to others! No bashing other’s opinions.

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  1. Mrs. Zwieg says:

    This is a great post based on the fact that you are questioning (which all of us should continue to questions till the day we are no longer here)!

    We did our first year of home education this last year and had a very structured curriculum. It did not work out well for us. They were bored, were usually completely done with "school" before lunch and becuase it was structured it still had the same affect of "spoon feeding" like the traditional school idea.

    My kids who are in the upper elementary grades have tested post high school in several subjects and so I have decided to give them more of a challenge. I am staying with a curriculum for Math since that is MY weak area and I need that structure to help them. Math is just one example.

    Another example is science. For science I am not using a curriculum persay just becuase they read and like to stay on one topic until they are bored with it or move on to another aspect (space has been going on for over 3 months now). Basically, the idea is to keep them challenged and to keep searching for answers to questions. My youngest wants to be an engineer someday so I do carefully suggest areas that will help him in that direction (he is very brilliant). I am teaching them how to do research reports (like a scientist would…college level and above), research ideas and definitions they don't understand and apply them correctly as well as understanding the various worldviews while maintaing and standing firm in their beliefs. These are things that cannot be taught or learned in a traditional setting.

    We are "kind of" taking a summer break, but we have World Book, New Popular Science, several different encyclopedias and tons of other books out in the open and available. They randomly sit down and look things up, my youngest last year sat down and read our entire Geographica (2,500 pages) because he was interested in other countries. This kind of free time, I totally encourage.

    We do not have TV and I think that helps them to desire to look up things. We have explored Macchu Pichu, the Pyramids of China, the lost city in the ocean by Japan and so much more due to their insatiable curiousity of the world they live in.

    I do know many kids for whom this will not work and I think the reason is two fold. First) Every child is different. It is proven that there are many learning styles and some children are just not self starters. Second) For a child to love learning, this needs to be modeled for them. If the people who are training this child LOVE to learn and learn almost as second nature, the child will see this and respond accordingly. (Science has proven that children will mimic).

    This post is just my "two cents." I look forward to seeing what others have to say as well! 🙂

  2. Anne Patrone says:

    As a former high school teacher and a current SAHM, I'm going to go post for the other side. Agreed, I love the idea of "unschooling" and letting a kid explore their interests and I think it might even work well when you are dealing with elementary kids whose broad interests (or perhaps even narrow) are well served.

    But school is more than just learning about academics. It's about dealing well and playing well with others. It's about tackling projects and topics that perhaps you have no interest in, but you need to know about to make you a well-rounded individual. And without those two elements, I think a child becomes very self-centered and unable to look outward at the world around them, which also might mean unable to accept differences.

  3. We homeschool our child (1st grade), and while we do have a curriculum we follow, we do a lot of "unschool" learning as well. As a homeschooling mom, you can find ways to educate your child no matter what you are doing. Others may not agree with the decision to homeschool, but looking at what the option is out there (Private schools are outrageous, and I do really want a Justin Beiber/Mylee Cyrus running around my house?), there really isn't anywhere else I would rather my child to be. I get to control what she is exposed to, not someone who is on a totally different "page" than our family. I'm so thankful we live in a country where we have the freedom to educate/raise our children as we see fit!

  4. Alicia C. says:

    I love unschooling! My oldest taught himself to read at 3.5 because he had some computer games he wanted to play. I got sick of reading him the instructions every 5 minutes and left him to figure it out. He was determined enough to learn it – because it was something he needed to know for himself – not a school board, not a teacher, not me!

    I wasn't radical – I bought educational items and put them in his way. When he got to the "Why" stage (around 4), we were at the library nearly every day because I didn't know the answer to a question. He learned to write down those questions and I showed him how to use a card catalog (remember those?!) and the Dewey Decimal system to find his answer.

    By playing on a child's natural curiosity and helping them find their answers, they will learn all they need to know.

    Check out John Holt (especially How Children Learn, How Children Fail, and Learning All the Time) for a great perspective on this. Also, for a good story of how one couple accidentally unschooled their kids, read Hard Times in paradise by David and Micki Colfax (the Snow Falling on Cedars guy!)

    I'd love to read more about what you learn and are doing!

  5. wondersndreams says:

    we are relaxed homeschoolers that use some of the ideas of unschooling. You don't have to be without worksheets, workbooks, curriculum or unit studies etc, its all about letting the child tell pursue their interests while learning at the same time.

    In my homeschool group we do not call what you described as "radical" unschooling, we call it unparenting, and most of us use semi-unschooling or full unschooling methods.

  6. I homeschool and when they were younger, I used a more relaxed approach (and still do with my youngest). Now that they are a little older and not as inclined to actively pursue learning, we follow a curriculum for the basics. I have to disagree with Anne P. that children have to attend traditional school so as not to be self-centered and learn to get along and tolerate others. In my many years of experience with public, private and homeschool, it is always the homeschooled children with the best manners and social skills. Not to mention the wide array of interest and passion for learning that their 'bored' and apathetic traditionally schooled peers mostly lack. I agree everyone needs to do what is best for their family, but the persistent subtle prejudice that homeschooled kids are socially retarded and lacking a 'real' education gets me steamed.

  7. Karine Traverse says:

    We plan to do a combination of unschooling and focused schooling. Some areas my 4 year old like your son has taught herself (alphabet, numbers, colors, shapes) though other areas I know she is going to need some kind of structured learning. Also like you I feel my middle child (3 years old) is going to need a more structured learning environment because she often goes several directions at once confusing herself. I think it varies by child. If I found that any structure didn't work for one of my children, then I might lean towards radical unschooling, but we have been lucky that so far unschooling with questions for mom and dad has really worked for us. We plan to take our home learning day by day and see what each of our child's needs are.

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