Should We All Be ‘Unschooling’ Our Kids This Year? (And How Does That Even Work?)

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You may have heard the term “unschooling” and filed it away under ‘cool-sounding parenting trends I might like to try if I were a different person, with a different life.’ Also in that file? Eating exclusively from your own vegetable patch, composting, RIE, cloth diapering, co-sleeping, eliminating all plastics and baby-wearing. All amazing, wholesome, worthy ideals that tend to bump up against and get demolished by the realities of modern motherhood. But then the pandemic hit. Suddenly we all became homeschoolers. Takeout queens became bread bakers. Parents who would ordinarily rush to the pediatrician for a runny nose began splinting their children’s sprained fingers themselves. Interest in home births skyrocketed. In the new normal, especially after the washout of remote learning, unschooling doesn’t sound quite so radical. It sounds aspirational.

Adding to its appeal are inspiring advocates like Alanis Morissette, who has been unschooling her own three kids (all under age 10), for years. “Unschooling, for me, is child-led education,” the singer explained to Health. She and her husband approach each day with a loose framework, keeping in the back of their minds the goal of covering certain subject areas (Nature/Garden, Music, Physical Activity, Spatial Awareness/Design, Social-Emotional Exploration, etc.). But the content of their ‘lessons’ is generated by family life itself. “So, if there’s some agenda like, ‘Let’s play with these magnet tiles,’ and my daughter is like, ‘F**k those tiles. I want to put glitter on that thing…’ boom — we do that…there’s no rigidity to it.” In unschooling, the child’s perspective isn’t just considered; it’s paramount. “I basically get inside their eyeballs,” Morissette said. “I’m constantly watching their eyes and what they've pulled toward, and then we do the deep dive.” A caveat—one that makes unschooling all but impossible for working parents—is that it works best with a highly engaged caregiver. “If my son is going to bed late on tour and he asks me three really huge, existential questions, there’s no, ‘Ah, we’ll talk about it in the morning.’ That is the moment,” Morissette added. “Unschooling is 24/7…It’s a major commitment.” Still intrigued? Read on.

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What Is Unschooling, Officially?

It’s not an educational style; it’s a lifestyle. It may not surprise you to learn the term “unschooling” was coined in the 1970s. Also known as self-directed or “delight-directed” learning, it is a mixed-age, child-led approach to teaching and learning without any traditional academic systems or requirements. That means no curriculum. No worksheets. No school-imposed schedule. No homework. No grades. No tests, quizzes, assignments or other methods of assessment designed to measure progress. No burnout. Children learn and develop at their own pace.

According to popular home education site thehomeschoolmom, unschooling is “an approach to homeschooling that generally means learning without prescribed lessons, textbooks, or the school-like methods many other homeschoolers use.” Unschooling parents “allow their children freedom to pursue their own interests and to learn, in their own ways, what they need to know to follow those interests,” writes evolutionary psychologist Peter Gray, author of Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. That doesn’t mean unschooling adults are hands-off; quite the opposite. “Parents may, in various ways, provide an environmental context and environmental support for the child's learning,” writes Gray, who is also president of the nonprofit Alliance for Self-Directed Education. Unschoolers “see life and learning as one.”

Unschooling vs Homeschooling: What’s the difference?

Unschooling is a style of educating that falls under the umbrella of homeschooling. It is estimated that 10 to 20 percent of US children who are homeschooled are unschoolers. Unschooling is simply one approach to homeschooling that is notably distinct from recreating school, in some form, at home.

For example, you can homeschool your children and still offer a highly detailed, tightly structured curriculum using textbooks, tests, adult-generated assignments and other typical elements of a traditional education, even if you, the parent, are acting as their teacher. Unschooling sets aside these conventional educational tools and adult-child power structures. Instead, all the content is dictated entirely by the child’s interests and leanings. Parents are there to offer creative support, relevant materials and guidance.

If your six year-old is interested in outer space, you could take her to the library to check out books about the cosmos. And encourage her to stay up late to stargaze. You might expose her to a DIY project making a Constellation Viewer out of a toilet paper roll. You could visit the planetarium. Or say your nine year-old is obsessed with butterflies. You could plant a pollinator garden with him, get some caterpillars and watch the process of metamorphosis for yourselves.

But unschooling parents have no pre-set agenda; they are not mapping out lessons in advance. Thehomeschoolmom explains, “Children will learn naturally, according to their own curiosity, with active parent partners to facilitate their learning. The parents…will support real-world learning that naturally occurs outside of school: projects, reading, writing, creating, experimenting, observing and more. Parents don’t coerce or require academics if they are unschoolers, but they do provide rich experiences such as library visits, read-alouds, things to build with, opportunities to pretend, resources other than curriculum and more.”

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What Are The Benefits Of Unschooling?

As Albert Einstein reportedly said, “The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.” Parents of children who do not thrive within the confines of traditional public school may appreciate this sentiment. With unschooling, children have the time and freedom to pursue their passions, which may lead to early expertise in any given subject area. Experts agree children develop on a continuum. As has been widely covered, some European educators wouldn’t dream of teaching a child to read before age seven. American kids are often pressured, mislabeled or shamed when they don’t develop along prescribed timelines. Imagine the liberation and self-esteem that can come from doing away with one-size-fits-all, government-mandated educational benchmarks. And, counter-intuitively, many unschooled kids grow up to be academics. The majority of unschoolers, once they reach adulthood, describe themselves as self-directed and self-motivated with a genuine love of learning. Many work in creative fields, STEM careers and become entrepreneurs. Adult unschooled respondents to a survey conducted by Gray said they were easily able to integrate into traditional academic settings, and to pick up skills (particularly in math) they may have missed as kids, despite their unorthodox early education. Writes Gray in Psychology Today: “Students who had never previously been in a classroom or read a textbook found themselves getting straight A’s and earning honors, both in community college courses and in bachelor’s programs.” Unschooling parents “described benefits having to do with their children’s psychological and physical wellbeing, improved social lives, and improved efficiency of learning and attitudes about learning.”

Many described family harmony as a key benefit of unschooling (can you imagine a world without homework fights or anxiety around standardized tests?). We tell ourselves that the work of toddlers is to play, to explore, to make friends. Why does this suddenly stop at age six? As noted on thehomeschoolmom, “Unschooled does not equal uneducated…A child who is reading a favorite book that’s not in a curriculum is still reading. A child who has written up a menu for a pretend restaurant is still writing…A little child who recognizes mushrooms, pine cones and a hawk on a nature walk is still being introduced to the life sciences.”

Is it legal?

Unschooling is legal as it is a form of homeschooling. Different states require different types of proof that children are meeting educational requirements. A typical homeschooling law mandates that parents submit a written Notice of Intent to Homeschool to their local district. This is often followed by an Individual Home Instruction Plan (IHIP), wherein parents must describe in detail how they plan to educate their children in a given set of subject areas. Some states also require quarterly reports, an end-of-year assessment and even standardized testing. Parents of older children may wish to create transcripts and gather evidence of accomplishments (portfolios, documented projects) so kids can demonstrate their ability to do college-level work if they decide to pursue higher education.

What do experts think?

Gray makes an almost irresistible case for unschooling: “Think of all of the things that children learn before they ever go to school,” he told NPR. “And this is not just some children that learn it, this is essentially all of the children. They learn their native language from scratch, they learn an enormous amount about the physical world around them and the social world around them. So unschooling is this: What if we just let them continue to do that?”

Tantalizingly, free play is an essential component of unschooling. Any parent who has felt her heart break watching her child wither away on a Zoom call now knows its value. According to researchers at the University of Colorado, “The more time that children spend in less-structured activities, the better their self-directed executive functioning.”

But we are talking specifically about unschooling in a pandemic. In this context, unschooling shares one glaring downside with remote learning: social isolation. 90 percent of American children attend public schools; presumably they will return to them full-time at some point. If your kid is unschooling, who will be around for him to play with? There’s also a rock solid argument to be made that the adults who are best equipped to teach children are…wait for it…teachers. “We have lots of research on guided learning, scaffolding, expert vs. non-expert teaching and all of it points to the fact that learning by doing is great, but learning by doing with an expert is better,” Sandra Martin-Chang, a researcher at Concordia University, told The Montreal Gazette. Finally, we need to acknowledge the elephant in the room: Unschooling is optimal in the realm of privilege. You need a stay-at-home parent to do it. “More than 70 percent of mothers with children under the age of 18 are in the workforce,” writes public school advocate Dana Goldstein in Slate. "One-third of all children and one-half of low-income children are being raised by a single parent. Fewer than one-half of young children, and only about one-third of low-income kids, are read to daily by an adult. Surely, this isn’t the picture of a nation ready to ‘self-educate’ its kids.” So yes, unschooling is a luxury. But if you can configure your life around it, there may be no better time than right now to explore whether it’s one you can afford.