Unschooling : What It Is and What It’s Not


My Unschooling Book Series (6)

What Unschooling Is

Of course, a book about unschooling needs to include a definition of unschooling. This is obvious, I know! However, I’m having trouble writing a good description.

Maybe I could say: Unschooling can be defined as allowing children the freedom to learn, in their own way and time, what interests them or what they think they need to know. (Not what we think they need to know.)

Most people think about unschooling very simply: It’s a method of homeschooling where a child doesn’t use a curriculum or a plan put together by a parent. Instead, she learns what interests her.

But unschooling is not really a method of homeschooling. It’s a way of life that both children and adults live.

Unschooling doesn’t just start when a child reaches school age, so I’d also like to include something about how unschooling is a natural way of learning. It’s the way babies and toddlers learn. And the way adults learn too.

And I also think unschooling is about helping our kids (and us) become the people they (and we) are meant to be.

How do I get all that into a good description? Could I write the definition similar to what I’ve written here, elaborating on each point, and then add stories in between the paragraphs to illustrate them? Or do all the points need to be combined into something concise? I’m still thinking and working on it!

In the meantime, I’ve been writing about what unschooling isn’t.

What Unschooling Is Not

I used to think unschooling was stepping back and letting our children learn completely on their own. 

I’d soaked up many editions of the John Holt magazine Growing Without Schooling. They were full of impressive unschooling stories. I read about a young boy who rewired the family home after figuring out how electrical circuits work. Another child drew hundreds of pictures of butterflies, each one different and detailed, after attending a lecture at the museum presented by an expert in the butterfly field.

After reading these stories, my eyes lit up. Excitement bubbled within me. If I allowed my children to follow their interests, they’d do similar amazing things. They’d learn so much without any help from me. They’d learn all they needed to know and much more. All I had to do was stay out of the way so I wouldn’t interfere with the natural learning process. 

So we began unschooling our first child when she reached school age. And I couldn’t wait to see what she was going to do. It was going to be something fantastic, I was sure. But, despite having the freedom to do whatever she liked, nothing much happened. I was very disappointed. How was she ever going to learn all the things essential for a good education? Children will learn all they need to know at a time when they need to know it. Is this really true? I began to have doubts.

After a while, my doubts led to ‘cheating’. Instead of letting my child discover the world entirely on her own, I began making suggestions about possible things she might like to learn about. I introduced her to such things as poetry and Shakespeare, and I offered to read her my favourite books. And because she responded well, and was obviously learning from this new way of doing things, I decided it was time to stop calling ourselves unschoolers. We had to homeschool in a way that resulted in learning. And that wasn’t unschooling. As far as I could see, there was no way unschooling was ever going to work. 

But of course, unschooling does work. So what was the problem? It wasn’t unschooling. It was me. Despite all my reading, I didn’t have a very good idea of what unschooling is.

I think a lot of people have the same problem. Maybe that’s why there are so many critics. They try to persuade us to stay away from unschooling: “Unschooling is lazy and negligent. You can’t just leave your kids on their own and hope they’ll learn all they need to know.” And the critics are right. But what they’re talking about isn’t unschooling. And what our family was doing right at the start wasn’t really unschooling either.

Unschooling parents can’t just stand back and hope their children will, by themselves, learn all they need to know. We have to play an active role, not a passive one. We need to be involved.

We need to be involved? What do parents need to do? I’ve got some ideas jotted down. I just need to work on them a bit more!

A New Podcast Series

Do you listen to my podcasts? I’ll still be making new episodes while I’m working on my book. These episodes will be shorter than my usual ones. Each one will be based on a blog post from my archive.

Today, I published the first episode in this new series: Critics, Unschooling, and Independent Learners. If you’d like to listen to it, you can find episode 111 here on my blog, on iTunes (or should that be Apple podcasts?) and on Podbean. Please take a look.

I don’t think I’ll be publishing these short podcast episodes as blog posts, but if you subscribe to my podcast, you’ll see them in your feed. (Episodes 112 and 113 have already been recorded!)

One last thing: If you have a favourite definition of unschooling, I hope you’ll share it with me!

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  1. Reply

    I do like your definition of unschooling! I think it is hard to define. I went to Utah to visit family shortly after my 5th child was born and I remember Jon’s cousins saying that their mom had been very busy(she’s very involved with natural healing)and didn’t spend a lot of time giving them school work and they learned a lot. I knew they would have learned more if there mother had spent her weekend making them cute checklists and planning activities to go along with their curriculum. I always made the kids do the boring part of the lesson as well as the activity. I didn’t want them to lack discipline or to be criticized myself. But now I know better and unschooling makes sense. It reminds me of being young and in middle school. I remember being corrected and criticized about my social skills and thinking that I could much better deal with real issues if I didn’t have someone taking an 8-10 hour chunk out of my day!

    Loved the podcast Sue. Always uplifted when I hear your positive messages!

    1. Reply


      It’s hard to get past the ideas we’ve picked up from our own education,isn’t it? We think we have to do things a certain way otherwise, as you said, our kids might end up undiciplined or we might be criticised. Even when we look back at our own experiences and know we didn’t benefit from the accepted school way of doing things, we still have problems letting go of them and doing something else.

      Unschooling does lots of sense! Maybe we just need time to adjust and then lots of courage to leave mainstream thinking behind and head out on our own and unschool. Though we aren’t really on our own. I love how we can discuss unschooling and help and support each other. It’s good!

      Thank you so much for listening to my podcast. I’m glad you enjoyed this week’s episode!

    • Dawn
    • November 7, 2017

    I could read this over and over – your writing is so helpful and reassuring! We are new to unschooling. Thank you for your writing and podcasts to help me learn how to give my children the wonderful life experience you have given yours.

    1. Reply


      I’m so glad you’re finding my writing and podcasts helpful. Giving our children a wonderful life experience… I love those words. Yes, that’s exactly what we’re trying to do! Thank you so much for stopping by to leave these encouraging words!

  2. Reply

    Unschooling is like opening a treasure chest of wonder drawer by drawer in front of our kids and allowing them to explore. What they choose to play with may not be what you expect, but they will passionately and excitedly immerse themselves, and you will learn along side them and you will learn about them.
    Wishing you well in defining. It’s not easy!
    xo Jazzy Jack

    1. Reply


      Oh my, your words are perfect! They conjure up a wonderful picture of unschooling. Would you mind if I used them in my book? Your comment has given me a fantastic idea (oh no, not another one!). I could add some short quotes here and there throughout the book. I could ask other unschoolers to write a few lines about various unschooling things such as “How would you describe unschooling?” I might write an email newsletter later today and talk about this idea. I’ll see if anyone is interested. I could add links to other unschoolers’ blogs or books or whatever as a thank you for their help. Let me know what you think!

      I’m glad I’m blogging as I’m editing. The comments have been so helpful. Thank you!

    • Nancy
    • November 8, 2017

    Sue, I would love to help you with your unschooling book. Any comments that I make, you are welcome to if you think they would benefit others. You know what my definition of unschooling is? It’s seeing the natural joy of learning on my son Nathan’s face! It’s when he is so excited to tell me or his Dad something new he has just learned about or discovered that his words are tumbling out of him faster than we can catch them all! To see his relaxed demeanor knowing he can learn and explore what is important to him. Not having to follow an agenda. That is my definition of unschooling!!!

    1. Reply


      I love your definiton of unschooling very much! Thank you so much for allowing me to use your comments. I appreciate your generosity and will add anything that’s relevant to my book!

  3. Reply

    Hi Sue! I’m really enjoying reading your book editing posts! Thanks!

    For me the key part of your original definition is ‘when they need to.’ My definition of when the kids need something, and there’s isn’t always the same.

    The latest example here came in the form of six-year-old No. 1 learning electronics, (or not). We’d started in by lighting up small bulbs and building little logic circuits. 1 had two manga books about how the human body worked that she’d devoured. Thinking I was a genius parent, I brought home a manga book on electricity, and…. nothing. 1 glanced through it, and then it went on the shelf… for months.

    Until last week. From out of nowhere, the book reappeared. 1 made sure to put it in her backpack before our camping trip, and was reading it to her younger sibs in the tent while they took it easy after hiking. Now we’re back into building circuits. 1 is asking questions when I get home from work, the whole gang and I are trying things out, and the gang is also playing with things during the day while I’m away.

    I’d say unschooling is different for every family, and involves more than a simple definition could possibly hold. For me, one part is butting out to let the kids learn about what they want, when they want. I just got a huge comeuppance on the when. Another part is working with the kid when they decide they want to learn something. I don’t always do this as efficiently as I could, but thank goodness, the kids are really persistent. Yet another part, is exposing the kids to things that might interest them. We perhaps don’t follow the unschooling ‘rules’ well. If there’s nothing else going on, we have the kids going places and seeing things. We put them in classes offered by Parks & Rec. We send them downtown, we send them to museums, we send them on errands, and so on.

    One last thing. Please do use any of my comments you’d like! I’m working on my project in the opposite direction, assembling my comments, (which tend to be lengthy), into a book-like format 🙂

    1. Reply


      Thank you so much for the permission to use your comments. You always have so many good to things to say. I think my book will be enriched by the input of other unschoolers such as yourself. I like the sound of your project. That’s a great idea. I could fill a book or two with the many comments I’ve written over the years, but I’ve never seriously considered doing this. I have, however, thought I could use some of them on a FAQ page.

      I always love hearing about your children’s adventures. It sounds like you live in a very interesting place, a very rich environment.

      “For me, one part is butting out to let the kids learn about what they want, when they want. ” Oh yes, sometimes we can get tempted to take over. I guess we just get excited. We think we know what the child needs and wants and we find what we thnk are the perfect resources. And then our kids surprise us by rejecting everything we’re offering. But as you said, our strewing might be accepted later down the track. Glad you all got to enjoy the manga electricity book!

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