What is Unschooling? (And is it Right for You?)

Unschooling. More than likely, you have already come across this homeschooling philosophy online or maybe you even know a family that learns this way. Although it hasn’t gained much popularity until recent years, the term was first coined back in the 1970s by educator John Holt. With homeschooling gaining more popularity over the past few decades and parents becoming increasingly unhappy with public and even private school systems, it’s no wonder unschooling is starting to make waves.

The name itself inspires curiosity. Like many others, you’re probably wondering what exactly it means to unschool. Is it legal? What are the pros and cons? We’ll answer those and some other frequently asked questions below. But first, let’s start with the basics…

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What is Unschooling?

In a nutshell, unschooling supports the notion that children will learn what they need to on their own. They don’t need classrooms or even teachers to do this for them. Kids’ natural curiosity will lead them down the right path to what they need and/or want to know.

Unschooling doesn’t use textbooks or curricula. Instead, children learn from the world around them and seek out information on their own. This could be from books, the internet, or even other people in their family or community.

Parents do provide guidance when needed. For instance, say a child gets engrossed in a David Attenborough special on insects, ants in particular. It becomes their newest obsession. Whereas some homeschoolers might put together or look up a unit study on the subject of ants, an unschooling parent will give recommendations to the child on where they can find the information they’re looking for themselves.

Now that we know a little more about the philosophy, let’s take a look at some frequently asked questions. (This is just a sampling. As you can imagine, there are a lot of questions surrounding unschooling!)

Common Unschooling Questions

Here are a few of the most commonly asked questions that we hear about unschooling:

How many families unschool?

It is estimated that roughly 200,000 families unschool in the U.S.

What are the pros and cons of unschooling?

Like any educational philosophy, there are many of each. Some of the pros include:
Flexible schedule. Children can learn whenever and wherever they want. This frees up time for extra activities, like homeschool groups and field trips.

Pros of Unschooling

  • Tailored learning – Parents can facilitate learning the best way for their child’s particular learning style and interests.
  • A safe learning environment – No criticism from others or potentially negative people in a public school setting.
  • No negative effects from test anxiety – It should come as no surprise that there are no tests in unschooling.
  • A true love of learning – Proponents of unschooling believe that because children aren’t being forced to learn one thing or another and explore subjects that actually pique their interest, they are more likely to enjoy learning for the sake of learning.

Cons of Unschooling

As with anything in life, there are some noted drawbacks to unschooling too.

  • Lack of structure – Some believe that this can cause a gap in important factual knowledge that children will later have to make up for. Lack of structure may also cause some students to have issues with time management and schedules in their adult lives.
  • Social criticism – Some families have reported increased criticism from family, friends, and even strangers for their learning choice.
  • Time commitment – Unschooling takes a lot of parental commitment to monitor their children’s interests and use of learning time to keep facilitating their learning. This could be difficult for parents who also work outside of the home.

Is Unschooling like Montessori?

We recently covered a similar educational philosophy: Montessori. Many people wonder if this and unschooling are similar and they are in some key areas. Both are child-centered philosophies that allow children to explore their interests. Both center around setting up environments that promote curiosity and enable children to learn on their own. Both involve a degree of learning practical skills, like household chores, sewing, building, gardening, and the like.

While they share many commonalities, there are some important differences too. Montessori, while it still allows for open exploration, has more structure. Materials and curriculum are chosen based on what a child needs to learn or is expected to at their age/grade level. With unschooling, if a child is not interested in something, it doesn’t get learned. Montessori has scheduled learning time, usually with specific “workstations” set up, where children can choose which one they want to spend their time at. Unschooling is more of a free for all. Families usually end up with a certain rhythm to their day that works for them. But, in general, the learning time is used for literally whatever the child wants, with no decision between choices.

Is Unschooling Legal?

As of now yes, it is perfectly legal in all 50 states since it is a type of homeschooling. That said, some state laws may make it more difficult than others since homeschooling requirements are different in each state.

Some states are very lax and let parents choose whatever curriculum or materials they want to teach their child. Others require homeschoolers to use certain curriculums. Some states do not have any laws about reporting what your child has learned. (Though it’s still in your best interest to keep records!)

Other states require you to keep a portfolio or otherwise show proof of what your child has learned. So, even though unschooling is legal, it may be near impossible to do in some states.

Is Unschooling Effective?

There was an interesting study/survey conducted by professor Peter Gray that includes responses from 232 people that had been unschooled at some point in their lives. You can find the results covered in an easy-to-read way in this article from KQED. We encourage you to make your own inferences from the information.

Why Are So Many Families Turning To Unschooling?

There are lots of appealing factors of unschooling. It offers flexibility for parents and kids. Children get to learn at their own pace, which means they will be able to fully understand subject matter before moving on. This ties in with reduced academic pressure, especially with testing. Unschooling also helps children feel responsible by taking control of their education. Another perk is that kids’ specific learning styles can be catered to. Plus, unschooling promotes stronger family bonds. Not just between parent and child, but siblings too.

What an Unschooling Day Might Look Like

As you can imagine, the nature of unschooling means that each day looks different, even in the same family…Even if they have a routine. But, so you can get a better idea of what unschooling might be like, here are some things that might be included in a “typical” day.

  • Morning – Wake up, personal time (video games, internet, reading for pleasure, etc), breakfast (which might be your children making it if you have older kids and they’re interested in cooking), a morning walk, project time or other personal interests (such as writing, practicing an instrument, art, researching a topic of interest, STEM kit, subscription box based on what they’re interested in), go to a homeschool group meetup, go on a field trip
  • Afternoon – Lunch, field trip or homeschool group, individual learning time similar to the morning, but might be different projects/subjects of interest, might take a class on Outschool or self-directed learning on websites like Khan Academy
  • Evening – Extracurriculars (dance class, hockey practice, etc), perhaps a part-time job or volunteering for older kids, dinner, a family board game or reading together, drawing, writing, or working on other personal interests before bedtime

How to Start Unschooling

Perhaps after reading this article (and others) unschooling sounds like something you and your children might like to try. But, where do you begin? This is where most people get hung up since unschooling is so different than the way most of us were taught. Check out these tips and suggestions below to start exploring unschooling for yourself.

  • Learn as much as you can about unschooling before you begin. There are plenty of blogs online from families who already unschool and are happy to share what they have learned along the way. Talk to and ask questions of unschoolers, whether it’s in an online forum or in person. There are also books on the subject, such as “Free to Learn” by Peter Gray and “Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Kids” by Kerry McDonald.
  • Start slow. Ease into things. It can be overwhelming to dive headfirst into any new way of doing something.
  • Figure out what your child’s learning style is. Do they get bored watching movies or listening to audiobooks? Maybe they’re more of a hands-on learner. Do they loathe reading books on their own? Try a documentary or online video instead.
  • Create an environment that promotes curiosity and self-directed learning. Make learning objects easily accessible to your children, such as books, craft materials, and even online resources. Access to books is especially emphasized, whether they are ones you own, from the library, or even audiobooks.
  • Look for resources that can help your children learn on their own. This can include educational websites, YouTube videos, or online classes through Outschool.
  • Include fun ways to learn things or practice skills, like games, local classes, and field trips. Your child might even get inspired to make their own game or research more on something they saw at a museum.
  • Give lots of options rather than “have to’s”.
  • Although unschooling is all about free learning, you may need to include some formal subjects at some point. This will depend on your child’s goals. For example, say your child wants to join the medical field. They will need a lot of science and math that they might not otherwise know to study on their own. So, an important part of unschooling is talking with your child about their goals and helping them choose the right subjects to study to achieve them.