The Basic Idea of Unschooling
Unschooling is basically the total rejection of the traditional schooling system. No classroom environment, no bells, no 30 minutes on math and then 40 minutes on social studies. Unschooling is child-led in every way. They decide what they want to learn, how they want to learn it, and how long they’re going to spend on that topic.
In a traditional school setting, when reading time is over but the child is immersed in their book, they have to set it aside and switch gears because, well, reading time is over. In an unschooling environment, children are encouraged to spend as long as they like on a topic and pursue it as far as they’d like. This freedom allows them to actually bypass what would be considered “their grade level” and learn as much as they want to about a subject. It can also work the other way, where a child may not have grasped a concept completely but now it’s time to move to the next topic, potentially allowing that student to get left behind because it wasn’t the right learning pace for them.
The most important principle is that education is not synonymous with curriculum. An education can be achieved in a million different ways, and each child, and adult for that matter, is uniquely different from one individual to the next. Allowing children to pursue what interests them the most will teach them about having a passion for life and doing what they enjoy as a career. Unschooled children can learn to think more independently, critically, and creatively when they are learning in an environment that isn’t governed by bells, rules, and being directed in every aspect of their lives.
Learning to Learn
One of the main ideas of unschooling is that your children are learning how to learn. More important than learning any specific, random topic is learning how to absorb information when you need to and process it into something you can understand completely. Ideally, if we learned every single fact about every single subject, we could be prepared for anything in life, but that approach just isn’t practical. Instead of just filling a child’s head with facts they’ve been trained to repeat back for a test, unschooling teaches them how to cultivate a genuine interest in things, learn to absorb knowledge through many different methods, and adapt their learning techniques when the need arises.
In a society that wholly accepts the idea that kids need to be told what to do and when to do it, the concept of unschooling sounds like utter chaos. It may even sound like a never-ending summer vacation to a child who has been firmly gripped by the restrictive learning schedule traditional schooling provides.
If you haven’t unschooled your kids from the very beginning, the process of deschooling is a bit like a decompression period. You need to learn to trust that they want to learn and can do so in an open environment. They need to get used to the idea that this isn’t just spring break and they now have the freedom to learn how and when they want.
The Role of the Parent
The difference between “homeschooling” and “unschooling” is that homeschooling is bringing the classroom home and following a set curriculum while unschooling is a child-led journey of absorbing knowledge and pursuing interests and passions. Unschooling removes the parent from the role of “teacher” but it definitely does not take the parent out of the equation. The parent’s role in unschooling is equally, if not more, important than the role of a teacher directing a student on when to turn to the next page.
Parents act as the facilitators of the child’s unschooling journey. If you sit back and pay no attention to what your child is doing you are not helping them to experience the world and learn about everything it has to teach them. The parent’s role is to provide guidance, support, resources, and inspiration to their child as they encourage them on their quest for knowledge. They also need to pay close attention to how their child is progressing, what their interests are, and what opportunities they might need to further their pursuits.
Children require stimulation in order to seek knowledge and stay inspired. Leaving a child in a bedroom with only stuffed animals to play with or plopping them down in front of the TV on a regular basis isn’t giving them the tools they need to learn or the inspiration to make them want to learn. Filling your house with stimulating materials like books, puzzles, games, art supplies, musical instruments, and other interactive tools will help them develop their brain and encourage creativity and the desire to seek knowledge.
It’s also important to take them places and act as their guide to the world. One of the greatest perks in leaving the classroom behind is that your child can have more time to get out and actually experience the world and see things first hand. Studying sea life at the beach instead of from a textbook is going to be a hundred times more engaging. Growing your own vegetable garden in the backyard is a much more exciting way to learn about biology than watching a video about the life cycle of a plant.
But, What About Socialization?
Some unschooling critics raise concerns about homeschooled or unschooled children not receiving the same socialization that children in a classroom environment would receive. Not only does this not have to be true, but unschooled children actually have the opportunity to socialize with a far more varied peer group than just a bunch of kids that all happen to be the same age.
By participating in events in the community, joining clubs and groups, volunteer activities, or spending time in public settings like a parks, pools, or recreational centers, you can give your child access to an endlessly diverse range of people. Instead of spending time with the same group of people, day in and day out, who are all the exact same age, unschooled children have the opportunity to meet and interact with people of any age, in any profession, and from every walk of life. Children who are always meeting new people and making new friends learn very quickly how to step out of their comfort zone, adapt to new encounters, and interact with people outside of a closed peer group.
The unschooling methods come from creativity on the parents’ behalf to provide experiences that will introduce their child to new ideas. This can include taking even the most mundane tasks, such as household responsibilities, and making them fun and educational. Children are encouraged to choose their own educational activities, but as a parent it’s your job to make a wide range of experiences and inspiring materials available to them.
Encourage curiosity and exploration while paying attention to your child’s interests. When they show interest in a specific subject, leave materials around that can educate about that topic or will further pique their interest in a related field. If it’s feasible, travel to places that interest them and show them how different cultures work. Take them into nature and let them explore in a hands on style rather than just reading about different types of trees from a book.
As an unschooler, you don’t need to shy away from “traditional” teaching materials if your child shows an interest in them. A textbook or online course may have valuable information that they would genuinely like to learn. Educational software and games can be an incredibly fun and interactive way for your child to learn.
Other people are an excellent resource as well. Giving your child access to people who work in fields they’re interested in can be an exciting way to show them how different careers look in a real and practical setting. Introducing them to other unschoolers can give them a peer group that shares a similar learning structure. Allowing them to meet people from every different type of educational background will give them insight into the different ways the world can work and will reinforce the idea that the world can and does actually work in many different ways.
The purpose of unschooling your children is to allow them the freedom to pursue their own interests, teach them how to set their own goals, and give them the skills that will allow them to think critically, creatively, and independently. You want to give your child everything they need to be able to navigate this crazy, confusing world and an open education system teaches them how to think for themselves, adapt to unique situations, and pursue passions that bring them happiness. There are plenty of unschooling critics who might think it’s all about keeping your kid home and letting them do whatever they want, but unschooling is actually about teaching your child about life, how the world works, how to adapt in it, and how to choose a life that will make them happy.
This type of education maintains a curiosity to continue learning throughout your entire life!