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Unschooling FAQ

What is unschooling?

Unschooling is a form of education that does not follow set guidelines or rules. Think of it as a philosophy rather than a system or method. Some people describe unschooling as "child-led learning" because the essence of unschooling involves an individual following his or her interests. A basic tenet of unschooling is the belief that the desire to learn is an intrinsic part of being human, and that children can be trusted to direct their learning in a productive, beneficial way. 

Child-led learning and unschooling are often associated with the word "unstructured," which can lead to some confusion. The distinction isn't so much between structure and lack of structure, but rather that the form is chosen by the learner, not imposed on him or her by someone else. It is one of the great beauties of unschooling that each individual's learning environment can reflect his or her needs and interests. There is no single way to unschool.

What do unschoolers do?

The simplest answer to this question is: live life. In this embrace of daily living, learning activities abound. These activities are not arbitrary, or imposed by an expert or authority dictating what should be learned when. Learning in this way becomes imbued with meaning, significance, and connection. The emphasis is on quality of life, pursuing dreams, and following passions. 

What is a typical day like?

Every day looks different for each unschooler. Some sleep late, while others prefer to rise early. A child's day might include pitching in with family responsibilities, enjoying free play alone or with older or younger siblings or friends, building structures, pretending, looking at books, conducting experiments, going to the park, writing, playing music, creating art, exploring nature, going to a museum, attending a class - anything at all, really, that stimulates interest, curiosity, and learning. 

Unschoolers are often not shy about asking questions - expect to become fully involved in your child's learning. In fact, unschooling parents find that close involvement with their children's education is one of unschooling's great benefits. Teenage unschoolers often have jobs or do volunteer work, becoming a responsible part of the adult world. Some teen unschoolers choose to enroll in college at an age earlier than their traditionally schooled peers, others choose to enroll along with the majority of their age mates, while still others opt to delay or forgo college for work or travel opportunities that inspire them.

Does unschooling mean I let my kids do whatever they want?

Unschooling parents love, guide, and care for their children just like any parent. Unschoolers can do household chores, have bedtimes, and participate in family life based on the values, expectations, and needs of their families. Remember - unschooling is a philosophy, not a method, and there are no rules about how to do it. Unschooling parents are actively involved in their children's lives. By introducing and exposing their children to new ideas and experiences, unschooling parents serve as guides. By listening and responding to their children's thoughts, concerns, insights, and stories, they act as a valuable sounding board. As a result, unschooling parents know their kids well and develop strong relationships with them. This puts them in an ideal position to be their children's first mentors, helping them open doors to new learning experiences they care about, and aiding them in discovering and pursuing new passions and interests that flow naturally from what they've already encountered and enjoyed.

What about academics?

Unschooling involves trusting children and their innate ability and desire to learn. The belief that certain subjects must be learned at particular times in order to be fully educated is not part of the unschooling philosophy. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are absorbed when each child is ready, at their own pace. Often, they are connected to the child's life in a meaningful way. For example, books chosen freely reflect what the child cares about. Pieces of writing can be letters to loved ones, creative stories and poems, commentaries on issues that spark emotion, or articles about a budding interest. Math becomes part of the world, something used in measuring, financial matters, building, and other real life ventures. A limitless range of materials and methods are available to unschoolers, which means they may also choose to learn algebra, grammar, or any other subject that might interest them by enrolling in formal courses, seeking out mentors, using self-guided traditional textbooks, or forming their own discussion groups or classes. Since unschoolers are not part of a school system, there is no need to subscribe to a schedule for learning. They are free to learn reading, writing, math, science, history, and other subjects at the pace that feels right to them. Because unschoolers' experience of these subjects is not arbitrarily segregated, they have the opportunity to see the intersection among them, and experience learning in a naturally interdisciplinary, holistic way.

What about when unschoolers have to do something they don't want to do?

Most parents choose to unschool because they want their children to experience joy in life and learning, rather than being forced to arbitrarily memorize or study material that holds no meaning for them. The key words are "arbitrary" and "meaningful." Unschoolers have a solid sense of what interests them, and have experienced firsthand the joy of self-directed learning. They've retained their inborn love of learning, which includes an understanding that acquiring knowledge, mastering skills, and understanding concepts includes hard work. Unschoolers don't shy away from that work. In fact, many unschoolers are out in the working world, or in the realms of higher education, or participating in significant volunteer work, long before their schooled age mates. Unschoolers have shown again and again that they perform admirably in "real world" situations.

How do I know my child is learning?

This goes back to trusting the child and believing in the child's natural desire and ability to learn. Creating product and using evaluation to measure knowledge and ability is not part of the unschooling philosophy. However, the astute parent and observer can see evidence of learning in any child's life. Learning cannot be stopped. Be open to your child's cues, provide an environment that allows questioning and exploration, and enjoy what happens. Academic subjects can be absorbed quickly when one is interested in them. Talk to other unschooling parents and listen to their stories, and watch unschooling children. Don't ask for proof of knowledge, but pay attention to what is happening in these children's lives. Often the question "How Do I Know My Child Is Learning?" really means, "How Do I Know My Child Would Measure Up to Society's Standards?" If you feel stuck on this question, examine the source of your fears and anxieties. Ask yourself if they're grounded in reality, or if they're the product of societal messages or your own history. This will help in whatever parenting or schooling choices you make.

Can unschoolers go to college?

Yes. Unschoolers have the same opportunity to apply to universities as anyone else. They may be asked for portfolios, essays, recommendations, transcripts (which can be self-created), and standardized test results. As more and more children educated outside of schools choose to enter college, it has become clear that homeschooling and unschooling are not obstacles. 

When do I stop unschooling?

Never. Unschooling is a way of life. Anyone can be an unschooler, regardless of age or educational background. One of the great rewards of unschooling for parents is reclaiming learning for themselves. The freedom to learn is a gift everyone can enjoy.