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Unschooling 101

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.”

  • Pingback: Unschooling . Education . PBS Parents | PBS

  • Sisternadirah

    Un schooling, hunh? I think this Way of educating a child will make them mediocre in their education in the long run. In addition it does not teach them about structure. Education does not have to be very formal, but no structure to their day?…no structure to their learning?… will set them up for difficulties,i believe, in their adult lives. Performance on the job, completing tasks etc…

    • Win

      Unschooling is on a bit of a spectrum. Some families do have unstructured days, but our kids choose to participate in numerous outside activities, and they enjoy learning in a structured way, so we actually have a pretty predictable routine. Just because one unschooler gives the impression of “no structure” does not mean that is how it is lived by all unschoolers – unschooling just means “not school,” and that can look different for each family.

      My oldest kids are in their mid-twenties and they and their many unschooled friends are succeeding in life very nicely – nothing mediocre about them. At a time when we’re seeing the highly structured schools have about 1/3 of their students failing to graduate (as high as 1/2 in urban schools), I don’t think we can see that structure of school has protected any one from “difficulties” in their adult lives. My oldest son has repeatedly joked about how he is the only person in his work place who did not go to school – but has never missed a day of work and has never been late. These things are not taught only by school attendance; in fact, I think that “avoidance” is frequently taught by school attendance.

      Open your mind; check on your automatic defaults and biases. Unschoolers are everywhere; as my oldest kids say, people don’t pick them out as a bit different than anyone else, except perhaps as more engaged – but no one “credits” unschooling for that — because no one knows they were unschooled!

      • Oopsiepoopsies

        In reality there are broad spectums of every situation so is there really an real right or wrong way of teaching a child. There are so many different ways and different styles what is right for my kids may not be what is right for your kids and vise versa so should we really be judging the other way so long as that is what you belive is right. What the true problem is is when the goverment sticks there noses into it all and say that yes there is a one true way and try to make us all conform.

        • polkm123

          You’re right they will have a hard time being a wage slave, no doubt they will own their own businesses, and all of the kids that go to school can work for them.

      • SB

        Then what’s the difference between “home schooling” and “unschooling”? I thought the core philosophical difference was that unschooling is unstructured and entirely student lead, while homeschooling involves the direction of the parent and a schedule and curriculum.

        • bgurrl

          John Holt used home schooling and unschooling interchangeably. Unschooling just means not school/pulling a child out of school etc. It doesn’t really mean structured or unstructured.

    • pbskid

      I was unschooled and did not have any structure, but as soon as I started going to public school I was an all “A’s” and “A+” student and I still am.

    • Korin Carpenter

      I understand where you are coming from, but as someone who unschooled for the first fifteen years of my life, I would say the only time when I really started to have difficulties was when I started public school. I started in tenth grade, and for that entire year I did extremely well, both because I had actually advanced reasonably far beyond my peers academically due to my own desire, and because I had never had any pressure to learn, so everything we did was fun. On my first assignment for science, I actually chose to right an essay over doing something else because it was a new experience for me, and I did far better on that project then anyone else in my class. Unschooling is definitely not for everyone, as it does require the parents to have an extremely patient, understanding attitude. However, I would say that it set me up for being far more successful and happy in school than either homeschooling or going to public or private school would have done.

    • Cristina Relyea

      I agree kids need to do something with their time.

  • W8_4lv

    I am a homeschool, I am NOT an unschooler, my kids educational standards exceed that of public or private school.  We work on school 8 hours a day and “unschool” nights and weekend when they take classes and have Extra-curricular activities. 

    • Win

      Wow – a little defensive there. I am an unschooler, and MY kids’ educational standards exceed that of public and private school too! We don’t have any idea how many hours we work on educational things – it’s just seamless – we read good books, attend an academic co-op, do math, explore science, play music, play sports, write songs/novels/poetry, go to plays, etc.. Tonight we read the Declaration of Independence and we will soon be watching a related history documentary.

      Really, we don’t look so different from W8_4lv!

      • SB

        And your childred directed ALL that? Your children suggested reading the Decleration AND watching a related history documentary, they suggested attending the academic co-op, they suggested doing the math…not one of those suggestions came from you? You did not establish their curriculum in any way?

        • SoCalHomeschoolSuccess

          Please, let’s stop hassling others and focus on your own concerns – like spelling Declaration correctly. :)

          • phathedbrother

            And post passive aggressive missives with little smiley faces. please. take your own advice.

          • Ashley Kimler

            Passive aggressive? Looked pretty straightforward to me: “Please, let’s stop hassling others…” :)

  • erin

    Unschooling is something so difficult to understand and trust unless you have lived it. It works and it is amazing. Life is so much fuller and authentic. We are unschooling again after a year in school for my son and it is even better the second time. My children unschooled and were at the top of their class in school just in case you guys out there think this does not work.

  • erin

    Also, I do not think you can be a part time unschooler/life learner/self directed learner. This is a whole life thing. It is embracing a level of trust that you do not have if you are school at homing. It changes everything. If you think you are unschooling on the weekends or at night etc, you are missing the point.

    • Korin Carpenter

      I agree with this, although I would argue that it is possible to maintain the attitude even if you do decide to try school. I chose to go to a charter high school for 10th and 11th grade, and I think that to a large extent I maintained my attitude as an unschooler. In fact, that is most likely what led me to decide to take extra classes during my free time, and finally to simply attend a community college full time during my senior year.

  • Laura ivansons

    It always cracks me up when people comment on lack of structure and failure. Know why so many traditionally schooled kids drop out of College? The inability to think for themselves and structure their own time, learn and study at anytime, adjust to a change in schedule each semester. Unschooled or not, homeschoolers thrive in college because hey already know how to direct their own learning, research and be responsible for their own time. Traditional schoolers have no power over there day-to-day time usage, must adhere to what someone else tells them they must know…I could go on and on. Think outside the box or be doomed to be sheeple.

    • Allysa

      HOMESCHOOLED. Not UNSCHOOLED. I was homeschooled, and my schedule changed often, but I still had structure and cirriculm. I just had a conversation with a mother who’s daughter didn’t learn to read until she was 12, and she learned it from a video game. So essentially her daughter is learning to function in society from a television screen. 0 accountability as a parent, imo.

  • Joanne Utke

    I liked the article. I have been doing some research on unschooling and I like it. We have been home schooling for almost 6 years now but I desire a more natural approach to parenting and my children’s education. I feel unschooling will give me what I am looking for. We started out pretty home school using a Charter but every year that went on we become more and more unschool. I look forward to learning more and implementing the unschool philosophy more and more. My kids have never been to school aside from some events and classes at our Charter program.

  • Cherry Grace Diaz

    I think it is also important to get a mentor who is very successful in the field your kid wants to pursue. Another thing that I see as a priority here is that the parents should constantly try to shield kids from negative influences which may cause addictions, lazyness, perversion or immorality.

    • Cherry Grace Diaz

      In an effort not to sound biased, I am referring to the parents’ own set of values which they want their own kids to develop.

  • ncteacher98

    WOW! So do I get to start UN-teaching? Sounds great! But what about the doctors, nurses, attorneys, bus drivers, sales people, restaurant workers, hospitality industry workers, military, firefighters, police officers? Do they get to UN-nurse? UN-drive? UN-sell? UN-cook? UN-fight? UN-serve? Can’t wait to see THAT world!

    • bgurrl

      Hon unschooling just means not school and is about self directed learning. Please before you post something you should read up on it. I’d start with John Holt the man who coined the term.

    • AngelSeeker

      Unschooling isn’t not teaching. It’s supposed to be child lead learning with the parent guiding the child to some degree. This writer makes it sound like you don’t actually teach the kids anything, but you are supposed to do what I call sneaky teaching. As a teacher I suggest that you look up “Sugata Mitra” and some of his ideas about how children can teach themselves. It’s not about leaving the children alone and expecting them to learn. It’s about giving them ideas and letting them go with it. How instead of trying to memorize facts they explore every dimension of an idea, bouncing their thoughts off of each other and coming to conclusions together. I’ve discovered that my son learns much better when he feels comfortable asking any question that strikes his fancy and he gets feedback that isn’t judgmental. I’m sure he would do even better with a group of children and I want to add something like this to our homeschool group. (BTW in my opinion the writer of this article has somehow missed the spirit of unschooling in her belief that she shouldn’t teach her children anything. At least that is the impression that she gives.

      • Glenda Lee

        I know this reply is six months old, but I only ‘learned’ about un-schooling today. I wish my parents had known about this back in the 1950-60s. Strangers who met me thought that I was a smart kid, because I was well read and knew things not taught on my grade level. But my report cards told a different story. Years later I was joking with my boss that the teachers just never asked me the right questions. I didn’t read the assignments from our text books. I read books from the library, which often gave more information, and many times caused me to lose points on tests because of spelling. Amon Re can be correctly spelled at least four different ways, but my 10th grade History teacher only wanted the text book spelling. And from modern History Channel programming pronunciation, it may be spelled Amun Ra now. (shrug) At any rate, while we are home schooling my grandsons, my daughter is looking forward to the ‘un-school’. I know the boys will love it, and as they are sharp and have impressed ME with things they’ve learned at play, I feel confident they will excel with this. We will still use some standard teaching mechanisms, but apply them to daily play and exploratory time. We are not raising future welfare recipients, but self reliant, thinking/reasoning future engineers. Considering their love for nature and all things mechanical, they will be well educated.

    • Ashley Kimler

      Artists, authors, poets, hackers, web developers, entrepreneurs, video game creators, visionaries, healers, herbologists, dog breeders, farmers, marijuana dispensary managers, inventors, mediators, bloggers, actors, musicians, yoga instructors, caregivers, meditation guides, houseparents, environmental non-profit managers, tea distributors, product developers – they all do these jobs when they want to because they love to, not because somebody said they should do it at this time and how. That’s 90% of my family/ community, and it’s beautiful.

  • Emil Cozo

    My daughter was unsschooled but now shes decided she wants to try school shes a junior this year how do I register ber for school csn anyone help me out with info single disabled father..aloha no

  • SoCalUnschoolSuccess

    Ah, what a different world it would be if, instead of criticizing the choices of others, we encouraged them and offered moral support! This is America. Can we celebrate our choices and freedoms instead of making them a cause for more bantering? I am the daughter of a California public school teacher (Juvenile Hall, no less) but that doesn’t mean I am loyal to public schools. My particular child has a photographic memory and loves art, music, science, and writing stories. The fact that I get to be home with him and watch his mind develop and grow makes for a far more meaningful “show” than anything else I can ask for as a mother. Best wishes to all of you – and your children…

    • Claudia Ritter

      Do you have any tips on unschooling in Southern California? I withdrew my daughter from public school only to be overwhelmed and unmotivated to “do school” at home through a local charter school.

  • Victoria L. Baxter-Caballero

    We started out w/ days of unschooling, and days of a more formal homeschool setting. I have noticed that my children learn either way. When I do try to unschool for a long period of time, the kids actually ASK me to teach them something–Please, can we do school tomorrow, they want to know at bedtime. So, I’m getting out the worksheets, and the laptop, and we’ll be starting up again.

    If anyone is interested, here is what homeschooling looks like in our home:

    Yes, we have days where a good video game demo counts as computer time or P.E. (we have the Wii, and love to do dance video games). However, there are just as many days when my kids want to take apart the cheap wall clock that hangs above our kitchen table, and put it back together, or help Daddy build a shelf, or see what happens if you mix two different colors of paint… You get the idea.

    We are not always a traditional unschool, nor are we the traditional school at home. We do us just fine. I imagine that many of you can do you just fine, as well.

  • Someone who cares

    So lets just make this next generation of people more stupid, because people aren’t dumb enough already! Worst idea ever! lets teach kids it’s ok to be lazy and do whatever they want with no responsibility. This is stupid and so are all of you. Put on the blinders from the real world and suddenly the world is such a wonderful place. You people are insane. Good luck with your delusional lives!

    • AngelSeeker

      In my opinion the person who wrote this story has a mixed up idea of what unschooling is. You don’t just live your life like it’s all play and make it a point to not teach them things. You teach them things by going place and doing things that will make learning come alive for them. When she thought about her kids needing to know about world religion that was the prefect time to introduce them to the subject. They could all discover them together. Find some churches to visit and people who practice them and ask them if they would talk to you about their religion. Find some documentaries about different religions and watch those. Then discuss the ideologies of different religions and try to do it in a non judgmental way. Let your children explore what faith means and expand upon that to include religious injustices in the past. It’s OK to let unschoolers do research. Higher math isn’t something to be shunned, but you try to teach in real life ways. Then if they are curious give them access to the tools they need to pursue that curiosity. And while you don’t HAVE to use worksheets you give your kids access to them. Some kids love them. Like some other parents here I practice a mix of unschooling and homeschooling. I want my son to go to college so I feel that he needs some structure. We attend may homeschool events. Special exhibits at the museum and other places. Often these spark his interest in subjects that we then learn about together. An exhibit about a pirate ship can inspire him to learn not only about other pirates, but about how people dressed, acted and traveled in early America. We can get books for the library and look things up online as his questions lead our learning along. “Mama how did the pirates cook their food?” And on we look that up I lead him along “I wonder how other people cooked their food 300 years ago.” “How do you think they got around since they didn’t have cars…” Then he will usually jump in with questions of his own. When he doesn’t I lead him to explore more aspects of whatever he is interested in at the time. When we are out doing things I look for ways to introduce him to new things all the time, not just when school is in secession. There are likely things he doesn’t know that other 6 year olds already do, but there are many things he does know that other 6 year olds haven’t even thought about learning yet. If he asks about something I answer truthfully and with perhaps more detail than he was expecting. I try to spark his interest about things. He wanted to learn about hieroglyphics so I got him some books on them. We looked them up on the computer and watched a show on ancient Egypt. We went the Egyptian exhibit at the museum and discussed the artifacts and what they were used for. The items they used for to add color or make paints and dyes and how they inlaid stones to make some of the decorations. If I couldn’t answer his questions I did what I always do, found someone who knew the the answer or looked it up on my phone. Because the time to answer is when a child is interested, open and receptive. Yes he watches more TV, plays too many video games and goes many more places than most kids his age. But he also writes poetry, (I type it for him because he thinks faster than he can write.) has a rich vocabulary, gives his opinion about subjects that amaze people since most 6 year old’s don’t know that, can do math at a 2nd and sometimes 3rd grade level, loves to read or be read too… What I’m saying is that unschooling isn’t an excuse to not to teach your children which is what this writer makes it sound like.

  • zombiexena

    how stable is this bowl as a finished product?

    • Rebecca Austin

      Its stable, but moisture (whether from getting wet or humidity over time) will make it sag. I’d probably wait for it to dry completely, then wait a couple days, then take it outside and spray it inside and out with clear spray paint or shellac or something to make it more durable.

  • Omie Dove

    I let my kids decide at the start of each school year if they want to go to public school or be homeschooled. The school faculty is a bunch of grumbly uneducated jerks, but the kids also like being around their friends. I tell them to have fun with their friends and not to worry about their grades. The school is set up for testing anyway so people can get their paychecks. I just wish they could be pleasant about it instead of getting paid to be mean.

  • 429CV23

    I suppose IF they’re able to find a substantial, productive job in the future, they’ll experience a high level of culture shock because of the structure required, since they will not have been socialized into it. If this BS gets any real momentum, I see the only real product being a whole new generation of welfare recipients.
    This is another idea by the ‘touchy-feely’ goobers who think little Johnny should get a trophy because he ‘tries hard’.

    • Glenda Lee

      LOL. That touchy feely crap was being encouraged at our local A school. Bullying was not being addressed. Parents were being ridiculed for not getting involved with their children’s homework, but when the parents called the teacher to explain a homework assignment that gave no instructions, the teachers would get belligerent. “Your child should pay more attention in class!” Well, yeah. But when you tell your child that and he says ‘I told the teacher I didn’t understand it, and she says the same thing, and I did pay attention, but I didn’t understand it’, what do you do? I am an adult with a better than average education. Yet, sometimes I don’t understand everything the first time I hear it. Teachers of all people should take the time to explain. I know there are children who will use this as an excuse to disrupt the class, or there are children who need the explanation broken down and simplified greater. But that is the teacher’s job. If they can’t/won’t do it, then it’s home schooling. As to the un-schooling principle, I don’t believe it would work for all children, but I do believe, if given a chance, the majority of them can excel. And if you are worried about those future welfare recipients, I’m certain there will be plenty of them from standard/structured schools on that same dole. And there will be just as many home/un-schooled adults as structured adults working to pay the taxes for those recipients. I know of many homeschool kids who are being socialized at family gatherings, community gatherings, and religious gatherings. They have ‘company manners’, they know how to use a fork and knife, as well as how to use the tools of math. I’ve seen many of them impress strangers or seldom seen acquaintances with knowledge clearly above their ‘structured school’ grade level. And I’ve seen just as many ‘structure school’ children who cannot read AT their grade level. Or work out simple math problems. What works for one group does not always work best for another. We all think and learn in different manners. We can’t ‘purple penguin’ that fact. Both my parents were math geniuses. Math was always my nemesis. But I got OJT and moved up to Accounting. I worked in a Lab with complicated formulas, and programming. Those standardized teaching methods ‘failed’ me in school. I got everything else, the History, Literature, Grammar, etc., but basic math was zilch. And remember that for centuries many children were taught at home before moving on to boarding schools or seminaries, or even the prairie schools. It has worked for people long before the term was invented.

  • Freddie TheArtist

    Where is there a list of the results of unschooling? Is there a list of successful unschoolers in the business world, inventors, entrepreneurs, entertainment, sports, etc???

  • DIY-100ideas
  • Dennis

    Agreed it is like a prison for there minds. An they only learn what others want them too. Just to pass a test so the schools and educators look good and do well on a scoring system to get funds and so they can say we are a A class school. That is there main goal not true education.

  • Len Shields

    Yes but how do we unschool..there articles on what to do but not how to go about doing it or where to start if u do online or regular school

  • Diana Auerhammer

    Well. Piaget said children learn best by being able to play during their learning.

  • Tracy Strange

    I made yarn bowls with the kids at school. The more yarn you use the more stable it is once it dries. You can actually use the bowls to put light weight objects in. Using more than one color really looks great. We even used three different colored yarn. You can even make shapes on the bowls, like flowers and it stays. It’s so awesome.

  • kashfia

    hi, how long does it take to dry?

  • Cristina Relyea

    I just don’t see playing video games as educational, call me old fashioned. I can understand wanting to home school because I’ve considered it but no schooling I can’t see. Not very many people like doing school work or having a job, it’s just part of our lives right now. Unschooling or not, we can’t protect our kids from all suffering. As much as we try, we cannot make life perfect for them.

  • Nina Walford

    My mom always says unschooling is just an excuse to get out of school.

  • Melissa

    Interesting, I don’t want to unschool my children I want to school them. There are things I want them to learn, but I would like to make sure they have the tools to learn things that interest them too. I read this article to have ideas on the best way to educate my children.

  • Eleanor Brace

    my 11 year old want me to unschool her .

  • Akeelah Haleeka

    I wan’t to do unschooling or k12 to travel but what is the legality of it if say leaving the country any advice is greatly appreciated?

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