Colleen Paeff’s 15-year-old son Jerry is a lot like other teenagers: he loves animation and video games and spends hours on end talking to friends over the computer or playing with Nintendo DS. But unlike other kids, Jerry doesn’t have to wait until school lets out for playtime to begin. That’s because Jerry hasn’t been enrolled in school since 2007, when Paeff began to “unschool” him.
Inspired by the teachings of John Holt (1923–1985), unschooling is a branch of homeschooling that promotes nonstructured, child-led learning. There’s no set curriculum or schedule. If Jerry wants to spend the day sleeping or playing video games or building catapults in the front yard, that’s okay. Actually, it’s better than okay, it’s great—so long as Jerry is happy and engaged. As Paeff explains it, “learning is not the main objective [of unschooling], it just happens as a side effect of living your life with passion and exploring our interests.”
Unschooling advocate Sandra Dodd describes a typical “unschool” day as “the best ever Saturday … the day people dream about when they are stuck in school.” Dodd, the mother of three grown unschooled children, says that she never doubted that her children would learn math and language and storytelling—even though they were never formally “taught” them. That’s because she has complete faith in natural learning. “You can only learn things that you are interested in,” she explains. “My best definition of unschooling is creating and maintaining an environment in which natural learning can flourish.”
It may sound simple, but unschooling is hard for people to wrap their heads around—especially since it sometimes looks like not much is happening. Is a kid playing video games or watching TV all day long really learning? Unschoolers say yes. Kids “can learn in a whole different way than kids in a school atmosphere,” says Helen Hegener, the editor and publisher of Home Education Magazine and the mother of five adult unschooled children. But Brian D. Ray, Ph.D., the President of the National Home Education Research Institute, is more skeptical, suggesting that more unschoolers rely on reading worksheets than will admit it: “Parents can say they are unschoolers, but every parent wants to see their child read and write.”
Dodd insists that forcing a worksheet on a child in the name of reading isn’t unschooling. That’s like “saying natural learning is not a guarantee,” she says. Instead, unschoolers say, a child may learn to read on his own, as a by-product of his attempts to decode a word spelled out between parents or the instructions for a video game. The basics of math can come together by counting the coins of an allowance, while geometry can be learned in a woodshop, with a hammer and saw. And as for trigonometry or calculus, well, maybe they aren’t necessary. After all, unschoolers argue, how many of us encounter quadratic equations on a regular basis?
For parents just starting to unschool—and for kids who move from a traditional school into unschooling—the elimination of worksheets, tests and all the other structures of school requires some mental adjustment, which unschoolers refer to as “deschooling.” Dodd estimates that it takes one month of “deschooling” for every year a child has been in school.
Paeff says it took her and Jerry about two years to truly get into the unschooling groove. Still, even after that deschooling period, Paeff says she still has moments when she feels like she needs to teach her son something. It happened recently, when she was reading a book about world religions. “I thought, ‘He needs to know about world religions’,” she remembers. But then a friend countered: if Paeff was just learning about different religions at the age of 40, couldn’t her son discover them on his own time too?
Allowing a child to learn on their own time line and following the meandering interests of a young mind are key to unschooling—as is trust. Parents need to “trust the kids [that] they know what they’re doing and they know how to do it,” says Hegener. For her part, Dodd says that raising children well—that is, with a joyful, enthusiastic, respectful and open mindset—is a guarantee that learning will become part of their being, as natural as breathing. “Your kids are as smart as you are,” she says. “They just aren’t as big as you are.”