A Gradual Approach to Unschooling

Maybe you’ve been reading about unschooling and you like the thought of it. Yes, it sounds good. But you’re not sure you can do it. It will take a lot of trust. You’ll have to think about things in a new way. Maybe you’ll need to make a lot of changes. It could feel very uncomfortable.

“What if my child wants to sit in front of the computer all day?” you ask.

“Yes, he might want to do that at first,” someone says. “He’ll be catching up. Later, when he realises you’re not going to restrict his computer time, he’ll relax and move onto other things.”

But what if he doesn’t? What if he sits there for hours and hours. He might not go outside and get any exercise. He could miss out on all kinds of other experiences.

“Perhaps computers are his thing. Shouldn’t kids be allowed to spend as much time as they need on their interests? No one tells adults how long they can spend working on their passions. Why should it be any different for children?”

This is all very true. I imagine being deep in my creative writing world. The words are flowing and then someone comes along and says, “That’s enough writing for one day. It’s time you did something else. You need a balanced life. And exercise. Go outside.” How frustrating to have to return to the normal world when we’re deeply immersed in our work.

But despite our concerns, we gather up our courage and say to our kids, “Yes, you can use the computer,” and then we stand back determined not to limit their time. Even if they spend all day there.  Which they do.  And they’re still there the next day and the one after that. Deep down we’re not really happy about this and we get anxious. Do our kids notice? Do they know we’re not really comfortable with the whole idea of letting go of control? Maybe they’re waiting for the moment when we grab back the reins. In the meantime, they might as well spend as long as possible on the computer while they’ve got the chance.

Even though we might be doing our best to let go and unschool, maybe we don’t really trust our kids and so they don’t trust us. No one is happy. And eventually, we decide we won’t unschool after all.

But what if we only let go as far as we’re comfortable? What if we approached unschooling in tiny steps? Let ourselves get used to it bit by bit? Not jump in the deep end but instead adopt a gradual approach?

You know what? I reckon this is the best way to move to an unschooling way of life.

Yes, we can listen to people who have more unschooling experience than us. Ponder what they have to say. Maybe push ourselves a little bit out of our comfort zone. But we shouldn’t do things that we’re not happy with just because we’ve been told by others that this is the way to go if we want to unschool properly. If we do, maybe we’ll end up rejecting unschooling altogether.

And who knows where a step-by-step approach to unschooling will lead? If someone had told me a few years ago that we’d become radical unschoolers, I would have protested loudly, “Oh no, I could never let go to that extent. I’m not even sure I should. It doesn’t feel right.” But here we are living the life I said we would never live.

It’s hard to change our way of life overnight. Perhaps we need time to ponder and absorb and work things out for ourselves. If we do that, our motivation for change will come from deep within us and not from other people. We’ll want to unschool because we truly believe, right to our cores, that this is the best way to live.

Images: Sophie, Imogen, Charlotte and Gemma-Rose. We arrived at unschooling in a very gradual and roundabout way. I never stop feeling thankful that I can live this way of life with my family.

So what do you think? A gradual approach? Or is it better just to jump in the deep end and leave behind an old way of life all at once? Or maybe different approaches suit different people? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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    • Anna Vaschina
    • June 12, 2017

    I’m a jump in all or nothing in a family of slow & steady. I think the gradual approach is one that depth and understanding comes. The jump in can lead to frustration and confusion especially if you’ve jumped in from school at home. The results don’t come so quickly. De schooling takes time.
    Slow and steady wins the race for us.

    I’m sure it’s so different for others especially those that unschool from birth.

    • Anna
    • June 14, 2017

    Yes to the gradual thing (partly because it’s less scary that way, and partly because small children really can’t make decisions yet, i.e. they need a lot of direct teaching about things like sharing, and not biting, and when you feel like this it means you’re tired and sleep will fix it, and so on), but I don’t think it’s the case that no one tells adults how much time they can spend on their passions. I have five, soon to be six and the oldest is 10; you’ve raised a large family yourself and know it wasn’t always the case that you got long (or any!) stretches of uninterrupted time to do anything, even if your passion was using the bathroom in peace. 🙂 Family life produces some natural limits on what any given person can do, at least if we’re also trying to teach being considerate of others. Many unschoolers talk about letting kids do whatever they want for however long (screen time being a common example) being the only unschool way that counts, while the reality is that one kid might want to use something (computer, cd player, mom’s lap) for hours, but other people in the family have legitimate needs too and everyone has to be taken into account.
    You’re truly very careful not to draw hard and fast lines about who’s doing it “right” and who isn’t, but I think a lot of people looking at the unschool life and wondering if they can do it are discouraged by thinking that that means the kids don’t ever have to consider anyone else, or that the parent is never allowed to interrupt the child when something else needs to be done. Part of the key (and you’ve written about it elsewhere) is modeling that: we have to limit our own time on devices to give our full attention to a child speaking to us, we have to put that book down to change a diaper, we have to interrupt our to-do list to read to someone, we have to stop what we’re doing to get in the car to take a child somewhere. And then we can lead our kids to recognize that they need to do the same because unschooling isn’t really just about uninterrupted me-time (which is the impression many people have).

  1. Reply


    Your thoughts on natural limits are very interesting and relevant. Yes, we talk about letting kids do what they want for as long as they’d like and it does sound like our kids will become very self-centered. I’m also sure a lot of people are discouraged because they think that unschooled kids don’t have to consider other people’s needs. However, it doesn’t work out this way. Without a parent imposing limits, unschooled kids learn to be considerate and generous. They give up their time and are willing to stop what they are doing when it’s necessary. The motivation to be generous comes from the child and not from the parent.

    I do agree that parents can’t spend as much time on their passions as we’d sometimes like. But although it can be frustrating at times, I think we are willing to be self-giving because we love our families and know there are times when their needs have to come before ours. You are right: We model what we hope our kids will learn. And they do follow our example. At least that’s what I’ve found!

    I think the problem you have mentioned is one of those unschooling misconceptions. It is true that parents don’t impose limits. But that doesn’t mean kids don’t impose them on themselves.

    I think my post did need some clarification. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and discussing this point!

  2. Reply

    I definitely needed to see this post at this time. I’ve got a son that’s been sitting at that computer for just about the entire day…..and this is not the first in the row of days this has happened.
    I find it such a struggle between letting him grow and explore and thinking, what if he never learns what he needs for the next phase of his life?
    My girls, on the other hand, were focused and goal oriented most of the time. It’s been quite a difference between the two sexes to watch.
    Thanks for the post! Definitely needed to read this and gave me food for thought.

    1. Reply


      Yes, our kids can be very different from each other. Some we worry about more than others. I’m sure your son will indeed learn all he needs to know, but if you’re not feeling happy about the situation, perhaps you can take things slowly. We need to feel at peace with our decisions, don’t we? Maybe a day will come when you’re quite happy to let your son manage his own computer time, but it sounds like you are reluctant to do that right at this moment.

      I’ll add a link to a series of articles that might interest you. They are about screen time and balance. There aren’t truly unschooling posts, but the ideas in them might suit you where you are right at this moment:


      Thanks for stopping by!

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