What Is Unschooling?

What is unschooling? I’ve been blogging about unschooling for over 5 years now. You’d think I would already have written a post with this title, wouldn’t you? But somehow I haven’t. Maybe that’s because unschooling is hard to define. Everyone seems to have a slightly different way of describing it. Some aspects of unschooling are more important to some people than they are to others.

So why have I suddenly decided to backtrack and write an unschooling definition post? Well, I’m busy putting together an unschooling book, taking ideas and stories from this blog, as well as adding new material. And although the main body of the book is looking fat and healthy, there is something missing from the beginning: an unschooling definition.

Maybe the best way to get my ideas about an unschooling definition into order is to share them here. I’ll try and make sense of the many thoughts that are circulating around my mind. And if you’d like to add your own ideas in the comments, please do!

So here goes…

Unschooling is a natural way of learning.

Children are born curious. They are eager to learn. And we, as parents, are eager to help them. We make sure our babies are surrounded by interesting things. We buy them bright toys which they look at, feel, listen to, and even taste. We bring them household items like wooden spoons and pots and pans. We name things again and again, without ever tiring of it. We sing to them, introducing them to music. We take our children on outings and show them leaves and flowers, waves and sand, shops and people. We let them feel the sunshine on their skin and the wind in their hair. We play games, talk to them, read books, pull funny faces and laugh with them. We have quiet times, rocking and snuggling. We might carry our babies around in a sling or pop them into a chair where they can see us while we work. We include our children in all aspects of our lives. By doing this, we surround them with many rich experiences.

While our children are absorbed in all these experiences, we’re observing and listening to them. We get to know them and their particular needs and we respond. We develop empathy. We become connected.

As our children grow, we recognise that some things interest them more than others. They pretend to be pirates or princesses or firemen or superheroes. We buy them toys and books that reflect these interests. We provide materials for them to experiment with. We listen as our kids tell us about the things that are important to them. We answer their never-ending questions.

We do what parents are naturally drawn to doing.

And what happens? Our children grow and develop. They learn to walk and talk and jump and dance. They draw and scribble and create. They accumulate all kinds of facts which delight and interest them. Of course, with each little development, we smile and encourage. We cheer our children on. We are proud parents taking great enjoyment in the development of a unique little person.

And then one day, our children are old enough to go to school. It’s time to make some decisions and move onto a new phase in our child’s life.

But what if we didn’t even think about this new stage? What if life just carried on as normal? We’d continue surrounding our children with rich and interesting environments. We’d continue encouraging, helping, listening and interacting with them.

Would our children keep learning? Yes. They’d continue to learn in a natural way. They’d be unschooling.

Unschooled children explore the world, learning from everything that happens in their lives. They follow their interests. They use and develop their talents. They observe, ask questions, ponder answers, read books, watch TV, search online for information, discuss, play games, experiment, maybe even enrol in a course.  They don’t follow someone else’s plan for their learning. They have the freedom to learn what is important to them.

Of course, unschooling isn’t something that only children do. Adults also ask questions, pursue answers, follow interests, and take great delight in finding out more about the world. We are always learning. It’s a life-long process. It’s a natural thing for all of us to do.

Unschooling is the way young children naturally learn. It’s also the way adults learn. If we give school-aged children the freedom to learn what is important to them, they’d be unschooling too.

Of course, there is a lot more I could say about unschooling: how we might have to unlearn the ideas we picked up from our own experiences at school, how it’s about relationships, how we need to trust and respect and be a good example, how we have to know when to offer help and when to step back, why unschooling is important… I’ve written a whole blog about these and other aspects of unschooling. And now I’m writing a book.

So what do you think? How would you define unschooling? What aspects of unschooling are important to you?

 

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Comments

    • emily
    • December 31, 2016
    Reply

    I’m so happy to hear you’re writing a book about unschooling! I was wondering why you didn’t have one, toyed with the idea of buzzing the suggestion in your ear.

    I’m not sure how your definition can be improved upon. Not by me, anyway! For any of your readers who likes the idea of unschooling but keeps asking, “But how will they learn thus-and-so” (fill in name of concept that we all had to learn in school, and probably never used), I invite them to watch a video I found yesterday. It’s a (clean!) rap song on YouTube, called “Don’t Stay In School” by a young man who calls himself boyinaband. He nails it.
    emily recently posted…Homeschooling 101, Part 8: MusicMy Profile

    1. Reply

      Emily,

      I’m glad you think an unschooling book is a good idea. I’ve been thinking about writing one for a long time. I’ve got a lot of material already gathered together so maybe it won’t take me too long to write the book as long as I work on it consistently.

      As I was writing this post, I kept thinking of things I wanted to add and the post got longer and longer. For example, I initially tried to answer your question, “But how will they learn thus-and-so” which is a relevant concern as you noted. I decided in the end, that the extras needed posts of their own and I should stick to a basic definition. I’ve got some ideas on how to answer that question, but I would be very interested in hearing boyinaband’s take on it. Thank you for the link!
      Sue Elvis recently posted…What Unschoolers Miss Out OnMy Profile

  1. Reply

    Thanks for the very nice explanation of unschooling! I’d say you nailed it!

    For us, it also includes the kids being fairly immersed in everything my wife and I do as well. When our youngest was still a baby, up through her first little bit as a toddler, she went to our physics laboratories with us. All the kids have been along with each of us to teach teach classes when we were both teaching, and other childcare arrangements fell though. We talk about everything we do work-wise, and neighborhood-wise around the kids as well. Consequently, for the moment at least, their interests tend to branch from either our interests, or things they see tangentially while out and about with us.

    For me, the thing that I worry about is capitalizing on their interests when they expres them. Some interests get expressed a half dozen times before we do anything with them. This behavior of mine stems–as much as from anything–from my own thought processes getting interested in disparate topics rapid-fire. For me, having to wait till something interests me over, and over serves as a rather convenient natural filter to keep my activities at a manageable level. I’m hoping it doe for them as well.

    Have you heard any guidelines about this sort of thing? Thanks for the thought provoking post!
    Hamilton recently posted…Shoes for ShooingMy Profile

    1. Reply

      Hamilton,
      Oh yes, I agree that it’s very important to immerse our kids in our lives, sharing our work, thoughts and interests with them. I know that you carry/have carried your kids around in a baby sling so that they can join in with whatever is happening in your life. We did the same.

      Yes, too many interests can be overwhelming. I know many parents enrol their kids in far too many extras such as ballet, music lessons, art classes, scouts…. We can only do so much. I wonder what kinds of things your kids are interested in. Do they involve much money or commitment? Are they things they can explore on their own if you provide the initial materials?

      I read an article somewhere online about managing our interests. It’s good to have lots of them and some people are more inclined to move from interest to interest, but of course, we can’t do too many things at the same time. The author of the article suggested writing everything down and then making decisions about what we’d like to do first. We can always explore things at a later date. I suppose we also explore different interests to different depths. Even if we only touch on a topic, it could still be valuable. Every learning experience is! I frequently wish each day was a bit longer so I could do more. Always so many interesting things to get involved with!
      Sue Elvis recently posted…Are You a Curious Unschooler?My Profile

      1. Reply

        Hi Sue!
        Our oldest who is 5, is interested in all sorts of things a little bit at a time. Her persistent interests so far include art, and robots. We’ve done a lot better of job of encouraging art than robots, (ironic since I’m an engineer). Part of that is due to the free art classes at our local museum. And yes, she constantly explores art on her own. It’s her default activity if she has quiet time.

        Our 4 y.o. is getting interested in reading, largely because he sees what his older sister can achieve with it. We’re working with him on letters and numbers when he’s interested. Resource are pretty cheap, street signs, and other written words out and about are put into service. Other than that, we’re using one workbook. Left to his own devices, he’s spending more and more time on his own practicing reading by looking at books over, and over.

        Meanwhile, our 1 y.o. daughter has been interested in superheros. Her resources include wearing her sisters swim goggles. She finally got her own cape for Christmas 🙂 He’s also interested in exploring the neighborhood, so we do a fair amount of that.
        Hamilton recently posted…Doom Patrol and Our Dada AdventuresMy Profile

        1. Reply

          Hamilton,

          I really enjoyed hearing about your children’s interests. Thanks for sharing! I bet you have loads of fun keeping up with these interests. Maybe some of them will indeed last. Everyone in my family loves superheroes and we’re well past the age of one. We still like to get out our capes and pretend we’re the Incredibles!
          Sue Elvis recently posted…An Unschooling ExperimentMy Profile

    • Amber
    • December 31, 2016
    Reply

    I like your definition of unschooling Sue.
    Unschooling is the natural way of learning. It’s how we would teach our children if schools didn’t exist. It’s how adults learn about things in the real world.
    It’s simply being, doing, and going about your life.
    I’m really interested in all aspects of unschooling but I’m especially interested in finding fun resources, what to say to family members who don’t understand the approach or are resistant to it, and how I can ‘unlearn’ some of the more school like patterns I sometimes slip into.
    I’m so excited that you are writing a book! I can’t wait! I’m such a book person and I’m not kidding you, I’ve actually been praying that you would write an unschooling book! I love blogs/blogging too but having a book in my hands that I can read over and over, makes highlights in and takes notes in, is my cup of tea!
    Best wishes on your writing and having a wonderful new year!

    1. Reply

      Amber,

      I’m glad you can relate to my definition of unschooling!

      “I’m especially interested in finding fun resources, what to say to family members who don’t understand the approach or are resistant to it, and how I can ‘unlearn’ some of the more school like patterns I sometimes slip into.” Those are some of the topics I definitely want to include in my book! I am so glad you like the idea of a book. Your comment makes me feel excited about this project. Yes, in a minute, I shall open up my file and continue working!

      Thank you for your wishes and New Year greetings. I hope you have a wonderful year too.
      Sue Elvis recently posted…The Difference Between Radical Unschooling and UnparentingMy Profile

    • J
    • January 3, 2017
    Reply

    howdy, I just found your blog today from a suggestion from a person who posted on another website where I had asked ‘homeschooling’ questions.
    wow, I think we’ve been unschooling this whole time and I didn’t even know unschooling was a ‘thing’.
    my husband and I have been coming to brick walls based on whether he feels like we are falling behind other ‘grades’ as if they were public/private schooled. I sort of had no idea how the other schools do things, only how we do things here at home.
    anyhoo, my question is about the parents of the unschooled children. will you be talking about how to remove blockages caused by poor upbringing, public school taught, damaging parents (they would be the children’s grandparents) and untapped potential in your upcoming book? do you have blogs about preparing yourself to unschool your children? I would also be interested in how to unschool several children with only so many hours in the day. we have six that are ages 9 and under.
    thanks 🙂 🙂
    ps, going to highlight your blog now 😉
    J recently posted…What Is Unschooling?My Profile

    1. Reply

      Hi J,

      I’m pleased you found my blog!

      We were unschooling a long time before we realised that what we were doing could be described as unschooling. My reaction when I found out was like yours: Wow! I just thought we were ‘doing our own thing’ and it was wonderful to find out that other people were living life in a similar way to us. I never used to tell people much about what we were doing. I was always a bit vague in case we were criticised. But now I have found my tribe and my confidence and so I write publicly about unschooling.

      There are indeed a lot of obstacles that get in the way of unschooling. Even if we come to believe unschooling is the right thing for our children, many other people still express their doubts. I’ve spoken about dealing with critics, our own fears and other things that get in the way of unschooling in my podcasts. I am going to turn those podcasts into articles which I’ll include in my book.

      Preparing ourselves to unschool… Oh yes, success definitely depends on the parents. I’m sure our kids will do just fine if given the chance. We just need to take courage and allow our kids to unschool. Reading more about unschooling, observing unschooling families, examining our own fears and deciding exactly what it is that is stopping us from unschooling… Doing these things can all help. Also, finding a support group when we feel accepted and encouraged as we explore new ideas, somewhere where we can ask questions…

      Six children under nine? What a wonderful family! I bet there is a lot going on at your place. And lots of love and fun. Although we do like to spend time with each of our children, the beauty of unschooling is that kids are self-motivated in their learning. They will always find something to do if we’re busy with other children. Also, learning looks different so we don’t have to find time to supervise structured activities. We can go with the flow, relax, and enjoy whatever’s going on in our families, knowing that kids are always learning. Perhaps I can sort out a few posts relating to the areas you’ve mentioned. I’ll add another comment when I’ve gathered together some info that might help. I hope that’s okay!

      It’s been great to chat with you. Thanks for stopping by!
      Sue Elvis recently posted…What Is Unschooling?My Profile

  2. Reply

    J,

    I’ve been thinking about your comment. Perhaps we have to unlearn a lot of things we were taught about education before we can feel comfortable unschooling. For example, we have to believe that kids will learn without us forcing them. Actually, I don’t think we can force kids to learn even though it may look like we can. We can punish or bribe or shame a child so that they will work but that isn’t real learning.

    https://www.storiesofanunschoolingfamily.com/making-children-learn-what-they-don/

    Then perhaps we have to question the school curriculum. Will kids really be disadvantaged if they don’t ‘keep up’ with school kids? Do we really need to know what the education department says is important? I’ve done a lot of examining of my own education and have come to the conclusion that not much of what I learnt at school is relevant to my life. In fact, I have forgotten so much. I only learnt things so I could pass exams and then I promptly let go of all that info.

    Perhaps we also need to let go of the idea that our kids have to learn certain things ‘just in case’. If our children do end up needing to know something in the school curriculum, they can always learn it when that need arises. They’ll be motivated to learn it. It’s never too late to learn.

    Although our unschooled children may not know all that school kids know, this doesn’t mean they’re not getting an educaton. I am amazed at the knowledge and skills my kids have. We have to value our own children’s talents and interests. Perhaps this is what you mean by untapped potential?

    Of course, we might be comfortable with giving our children freedom to learn what interests them, but as you said, other people such as grandparents might be worried. We have to do what we feel is right for our children but at the same time, we don’t want to fight with our extended family. I spoke about answering critics in a podcast, Responding to Unschooling and Other Critics:

    https://www.storiesofanunschoolingfamily.com/responding-to-unschooling-and-other/

    Also, Dealing with Our Fears and Other People’s Critical Comments:

    https://www.storiesofanunschoolingfamily.com/dealing-with-our-fears-and-other/

    Thinking Critically about Unschooling:

    https://www.storiesofanunschoolingfamily.com/thinking-critically-about-unschooling/

    Unlearning all those ideas about education and school, the ones we were brought up with is called deschooling. Perhaps Sandra Dodds Deschooling page might help:

    http://sandradodd.com/deschooling/

    I hope some of these posts and podcasts are helpful. I have a lot of info on this blog and I could hunt out more relevant posts. Even better than that, I should organise the info properly and include it in my book. Thank you so much for your comment. I’m quite happy to chat some more if you’d like to do that!
    Sue Elvis recently posted…An Unschooling ExperimentMy Profile

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