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What is unschooling?

To those brought up in a strict school environment, the idea of unschooling seems almost unfathomable. But this growing movement within home education actually has many impressive benefits. Read on to find out more about unschooling and why children thrive with this type of relaxed approach to learning.


School vs. unschool

As the number of homeschoolers in the United States has increased dramatically in recent years, unschooling has also risen in popularity. Unschoolers believe that the desire to learn is part of human nature and does not need to happen in a classroom or be driven by government-regulated standards.

Families that unschool believe that children are naturally driven to learn from the world around them. Rather than acting as “teachers” unschool parents enjoy facilitating their children’s interests, as well as being co-learners in their educational journey.

Parents who choose to unschool see learning as a fluid experience that does not need to adhere to specific curriculum, textbooks or age-oriented goals. As Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s mentor and friend described, “I am beginning to suspect all elaborate and special systems of education. They seem to me to be built on the supposition that every child is a kind of idiot who must be taught to think. Whereas if the child is left to himself, he will think more and better, if less ‘showily.’ Let him come and go freely, let him touch real things and combine his impressions for himself… Teaching fills the mind with artificial associations that must be got rid of before the child can develop independent ideas out of actual experiences.”

Life learning

Unschooling does not mean that children are simply left on their own to learn or that parents can never teach their children anything. But unschooling does mean that parents let go of artificial expectations of goal-oriented learning and trust that their child will have the inner drive to learn all the things he needs to learn to get along in this world. Pat Farenga, co-author of Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book of Homeschooling, explained the concept of unschooling this way:

Unschooling, for lack of a better term (until people start to accept living as part and parcel of learning), is the natural way to learn. However, this does not mean unschoolers do not take traditional classes or use curricular materials when the student, or parents and children together, decide that this is how they want to do it. Learning to read or do quadratic equations are not ‘natural’ processes, but unschoolers nonetheless learn them when it makes sense to them to do so, not because they have reached a certain age or are compelled to do so by arbitrary authority.

Is unschooling legal?

Unschooling is an approach to homeschooling, which is legal in all 50 states. Although some states are more homeschool-friendly than others, there are families who are unschooling in every state in the U.S. Check the Home School Legal Defense Association for a description of the homeschool requirements in your state.

Are unschoolers really learning?

For those who are new to the concept of unschooling, this is the most significant question on anyone’s mind, “But how do you know they are learning?” It is asked by concerned family members, friends, neighbors and even by unschool parents themselves.

Unschooling mom Sandra Dodd gives her perspective in her essay, “Unexpected Benefits of Unschooling” in Life Learning Magazine: “Anyone who is involved in natural learning for any length of time can find it difficult to summarize what children have learned academically, because each child’s knowledge comes from such varied sources and is fit together uniquely. At first, though, I thought I wouldn’t miss a single thing. Then I totally missed them learning Roman numerals, which they learned from the names of a series of MegaMan video games. I was jealous of that MegaMan guy, at first. I felt cheated out of the fun of seeing their eyes light up. But in thinking about that feeling, I realized that if life is a busy, happy swirl, they will learn,” she says. “Learning is guaranteed. The range and content will vary, but the learning will happen.”

Unschool benefits

Families who unschool list innumerable benefits to unschooling. They enjoy watching their children explore and grow, more family bonding time, the opportunity to be co-learners with their kids and the freedom to be unbound by arbitrary notions about standardized learning.

Ami Campbell, unschooling mom of three says, “I love unschooling! It’s all about trust, respect and patience. It’s a journey for the parents as well, constant letting go of others’ expectations. It’s super fun and rewarding. I can’t ‘recommend’ it to anyone, because I think one must find it for themselves,” says Campbell. “Read, feel, experience, experiment, observe… and see what works for them.”

Would you ever consider unschooling your child? Tell us the comments below!

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