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What on Earth is ‘Unschooling’ — & Should We All Be Doing It Next?

What if your child’s school day started with him packing his lunch, grabbing his canteen, and marching off towards the horizon, away from you? It might sound crazy, especially nowadays with so many of us trapped indoors homeschooling our kids simply because we have no other options. But “unschooling” is an experience that’s available to families who choose to forego more structured forms of education. But what on earth is it?

When I first heard about unschooling, I felt a little suspicious of the practice. How could children meet their educational needs if they were truly self-directed in their learning? Wouldn’t they just sit around all day?

Unschooling and attachment parenting coach Laurie Couture is adamant that the exact opposite occurs when children are truly free to explore their educational interests. She unschooled her son through his adolescence and all the way to his high school graduation, and she observed him reap incredible benefits from his nontraditional education.

“There were few ‘typical’ days in our adventurous family,” she tells SheKnows. “As a single, working mom I built my career around my son and being able to open the world up to him.” Their weeks consisted of involvement in home-school groups, exploring natural habitats and involving themselves in the neighborhood through art, speaking engagements, volunteering and spending time with extended family.

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Freedom in play is so important. They are learning, they are putting what they have learned into practice through play, and they are using their imagination, letting their curiosity fly. If we dictate what they do all day, if we schedule them to the max, if we don’t allow for this sense of freedom, this sense of ability, we are doing them a major disservice. Especially in the younger years of childhood, play is a major component of learning. They will learn the alphabet. They will learn to read. They will learn what they need to know when they are ready. Play is part of that. Learning to be this person in this world, learning their place, their passions, their needs, it is all important for their development. They are learning about the world around them. Their curiosity will turn toward reading and writing when they are ready. For now, they play. They sing. They laugh. They invent elaborate stories and games. They build entire worlds in Minecraft. They follow their likes. They walk barefoot in the dirt and remind me that I, too, need some grounding. They remind me to take off my shoes, to feel the earth beneath my feet, to feel the energy through my toes. . . . #motherhood #unschooling #parenthood #childhood #learning #lifeledlearning #homeeducation #naturelearning #nature #outdoors #play #learningthroughplay #letkidsbekids #simplelife #grounding #motherearth #love #intheberkshires #berkshiresma

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According to The Natural Child Project, Couture nailed the unschooling trend with the style of her son’s education.

“Unschooling is a unique opportunity for each family to do whatever makes sense for the growth and development of their children,” Earl Stevens of The Natural Child Project explains. “If we have a reason for using curriculum and traditional school materials, then we use them.”

Any curriculum used in unschooling, however, is a supplement to the learning experiences that children and their families undertake on a daily basis to foster a lifelong love of learning and fascination with the world.

The constant stream of field trips and fun experiences certainly sound fun, but Couture states that they also served as a foundation for her son’s life and future career. In fact, she sees unschooling as an effective way to set a child on course for the career he or she will want as an adult.

“My son ran his own business starting at the age of 12 and began his music career at the age of 14. He had media interviews, he joined me for public speaking gigs around the country and he recorded music,” Couture says. She believes that he would have missed out on these creative career opportunities if he had been pigeonholed into a one-size-fits-all public education. “He was safe from the bullying of public schools that especially target boys for negativity, labels and failure. The vibrant and dynamic life experience my son has had would have been impossible in the traditional public school system,” she adds.

But what about college? And what about a child losing interest in their own education?

Couture states that if a parent undertakes unschooling effectively, these questions answer themselves. “When a child follows his own passions and interests, there is no need to force him to stay engaged in his learning,” she says. “Learning happens naturally.” She also added that her son’s unschooling perspective helped him compete — and earn college scholarships for his continuing education.

If you want to learn more about this interesting educational perspective, Couture suggests that parents check out Life Learning Magazine for a crash course in unschooling and self-directed learning.

A version of this story was originally published in August of 2015.

Whether or not you’re ready to make the unschooling leap, here are some ideas to keep your kids busy at home.

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