Monday Musings - Is “Unschooling” a Good Idea?

Okay, I have to admit that I was a bit shocked while reading this article. It’s all about parents who have decided to “unschool” their kids. Yea, I didn’t know what it was either, but thankfully to Wikipedia, I quickly found out. According to the site,

“Unschooling” is a range of educational, philosophies and practices centered o allowing children to learn through their natural life experiences, including play, game play, household responsibilities, work experience and social interaction, rather than through a more traditional school curriculum.”

Now, in case this explanation is not clear, let me explain the concept in more simple terms. Unschooling on a day-to-day basis may include children not attending school (because they don’t want to), children not brushing their teeth or having a bath (because they don’t want to) and children having no set bedtime (because they want to stay up late). Whether you agree or disagree, there is a growing movement towards this method of child-rearing.

So what I’d like to as in this edition of Monday Musings is what your thoughts are on this new way of raising kids. How do you feel about unschooling? Would you unschool your kids? Why or why not?

Looking forward to your thoughts!

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  1. Allison Peacock says

    Yippee for you! Unschooling is what we’d all do if we didn’t have jobs and so many other demands on our lives. In my dream Utopia schools look a lot more like unschooling that what we call “schooling!”

    Making the decision to unschool my 5th grader for a year and a half was a naturally easy one when we were faced with his not fitting in with the expectations of his two teachers, counselor, and principal - all of whom either used mind-altering drugs personally or with their own children to fit in with other people’s expectations. So of course they were incapable of accommodating my son’s needs for creativity and thinking outside the box in the classroom. After the advent of standardized testing as the single indicator of success in the classroom, public school education is simply not the right choice for every learning style.

    My four children, ages 15 - 26 have been to mostly public schools, augmented by private and Waldorf schools over the years. And hands down the period during which my son followed his own bliss completely unstructured (with me at home) was the best ever. In that year he built a model engine, studied the creation of money, read myths every day and generally re-discovered his innate curiosity.

    This son is now 24 and an artist, novel-writer and teacher. He is the family authority on storytelling, history, and writing. He was a joy to raise and is now a joy to know!

    Hooray for unschooling!

    1. Samantha says

      Wow, Allison! Thank-you for your detailed and insightful answer. Thank you as well for sharing the story of your son and how he thrived during a year of unschooling. Like I mentioned in the video and post, I had never heard of the concept until today and, to be honest, I really didn’t know what to think. The thought of our kids running the show and following their hearts without adult interference makes me nervous, I have to admit. At least it does in the context of my kids. We are so structured as a society, our kids included, that when the opportunity to perhaps not follow along with the prescribed course of action with our children arises, many of us feel anxious. While I agree that there are likely many benefits to the kids who do follow this method of education, I believe that there are an equal amount of kids who would not particularly thrive without the structure of day-to-day school. Perhaps I’m naive and am basing this assumption on my own experience of only doing things the conventional way; who knows? That said, it’s always interesting to see an alternative point of view to your own to really make you question what you believe. This unschooling movement has definitely done that for me.
      Thanks for sharing :)

  2. Melissa Y says

    I am SO glad that you didn’t just jump down this poor parent’s throat like so many would have!

    If unschooling was a legal option where I live, I would most definitely try it out… although being a rule-follower myself, I think I’d still have to set more boundaries than the parents profiled.

    We have memberships to 2 museums, the YMCA and a butterfly conservatory and we spend hours each week out exploring the world around us. I can confidently say that the lessons my boys have learned from our weekend fun times have stuck with them far better than the things they are learning in school.

    It’s time to open our minds and consider ideas outside our own box. Taking bits and pieces from all parenting techniques defines who we become as parents and I for one, am always up for a new challenge!

    1. Samantha says

      Hi Melissa,

      I couldn’t and shouldn’t judge because, as mentioned, I hadn’t even heard about this type of education before I wrote the post. I have to admit that I do find it intriguing and scary at the same time. Intriguing because of the possibilities that could be achieved by spending time with your kids without the spectre of school, morning rushes, studying and homework. On the flip side is the conservative me, telling me that the tried and true is the way to go, i.e. the conventional method of teaching kids is, for the most part, not broken, so why try to fix it? There’s comfort in the familiar which is and is not, surprisingly, a good thing. Sometimes we have to step outside of our own little boxes to experience something that may change our lives forever; other times (and more often) we stay with what we know and live to regret the choices that we made earlier.
      Thanks for commenting.

  3. Lori says

    I think that every family does what works best for them and that every child learns in their own ways. Not all families can afford to “unschool” their children and not all children will thrive in that type of environment. Just the same that not all children thrive in the school system and that the school system isn’t right for all families.
    I believe there are many things wrong in our school system and I also believe that unschooling, if possible, is a great idea for many. However, I also believe most children need structure and if I were to unschool our children, I, too, would have more structure.
    I believe the time that is spent with our children “teaching” them in a fun, non traditional school ways (eg trips to the zoo, science experiments at home, exploring the world in many different avenues etc) are way more beneficial than sitting in a classroom listening to lectures. This is why more teachers are starting to adapt the hands- on approach to learning.
    I am a certified teacher, but am choosing to be a stay at home mom until our kids are old enough to be in school full time. When I was doing my practicum, I did a lot of hands-on activities for ALL subjects. I included music, movement, art, technology etc to reach as many learning styles as possible. The kids loved it and when they were “assessed” on what they had learned, they all bloomed! It was a great learning experience for me. When I speak of assessment, I didn’t test the kids to see what they had learned. They were given options on how to show me they had learned something (through writing, verbal, test, putting on a play, creating a song etc). This way they were choosing the learning style that was best for them. No one failed. I had chosen a test method once for a very similar lesson and 1/3 of the class failed. When I spoke with these students about what happend, they all said they were so nervous about tests and felt tremendous pressure that they simply just can’t do them. These same kids receive A’s when they got to choose their “assessment” style. Our children don’t need any more pressure on them than they already have. Standardized testing is a joke.
    Given all the recent events with school shootings and violence, sometimes I wonder if unschooling our children is a better alternative. I believe that as long as there is some type of structure, learning in a way that is great for your child, socialization and fun, that a child will flourish and become who they are meant to be. It is when there is zero structure, zero learning (or ineffective learning), no socialization and no fun that children become jaded and quickly dislike the learning environment that they are in, regardless of what type it is.
    I believe the Montessori school (which both our children have been in) is more like an “unschooling” school than our current curriculum based public schools and most children do well in their system, but not all. It is based on what’s best for the child and the family. We are all unique and different and I think that if unschooling works for a family and their child(ren), then good for them for taking the initiative to provide their child(ren) with an effective education that will stick with them, not stereotype them or segregate them in any way.

    1. Samantha says

      Thanks for your thoughtful and insightful comment, Lori. As I mentioned in my post, I too believe that homeschooling could be the way for some kids as we definitely all learn differently and what works for one child may not work for another. With my kids, I think that the structure of a school day curriculum is best, but that’s just me. I am also a bit risk-averse when it comes to my kids and their best interests and because I’ve been of the mindset that the traditional educational programs have been successful thus far with them, I will likely stay with them, at least for now. That said, I can appreciate that not all children learn the same way and that we must look at alternatives for those who have a different way of processing information. At the end of the day, it’s all about the kids and what will help them learn and thrive in this world, so if it’s unschooling, then so be it.

  4. Shari says

    IMHO the key to everything in life is moderation. Carried to the extreme, this philosophy could be as damaging as the over structured world they are trying to get away from. Kids need structure and discipline within reasonable boundaries but also need to be free to explore and be creative within reasonable boundaries. Structured learning and routine is important because it teaches skills that are necessary to functioning in the real world. And The basics of reading and writing and math will form a solid foundation on which they can then explore whatever areas their hearts would like in their “unschooled” time.

    1. Samantha says

      Hi Shari,

      I agree that kids need some type of structure; I think that the basis behind “unschooling” is that the kids have more in the say about what the structure is going to be. They seem to have more of a say in what they will be doing on a day-to-day basis as opposed to having to adhere to a more rigid schedule as set up via their schools. For those who have chosen this method of education, many stand by it as one of the best things that they have done. On the other end of the spectrum are those who feel that this type of teaching/learning can be harmful, as structure is key to a kids’ ability to learn. I guess the jury’s still out on who’s right, though I suspect that we’ll be seeing more parents trying unschooling and other alternative teaching models in an effort to get the best experiences for their kids. Thanks for commenting.

  5. Emilie Rugard says

    I’m sorry but Wikipedia is right and you are wrong. The term you are looking for is “radical unschooling”. Look it up. Unschooling is purely about education not parenting practises. “Radical unschooling” is about letting children decide about meals and baths and bedtimes.

    1. Samantha says

      Thanks, Emile. As someone who’d never heard of unschooling before, I was going purely on this article that was referenced in my blog post. It clearly indicates that the children can make the choices that relate to their staying up late, eating and brushing their teeth. The article does not say that these decisions are part of a “radical” unschooling model; just that they are part of unschooling. For those of us who had never heard of this educational model, we go by what we are shown, in this case, the Huffington Post article. If there are indeed levels of unschooling like you indicate, e.g. radical unschooling, etc., then I’d love to hear more about them. Thanks for your feedback.

  6. mrsculpepper says

    Hi Samantha :)

    Another unschooling parent chiming in here. We’ve been unschooling our oldest for 3 years now. We are not “radical” unschoolers although I learn alot from some of the radical unschooling sites I visit. Sandra Dodd is a good one to research if you’re interested in learning more about radical unschooling.

    In our home unschooling means our daughter is free to pursue any interest she has, and is not required to follow any set curriculumn. We do strew ideas and activities. We’re working on a study of ancient egypt at the moment. I find myself making a lot of suggestions, and she’ll take me up on some of those and ignore others. There are plenty of days she spends most of her time watching music videos on youtube. And then there are days when we spend hours at the library. And days when we all work together getting chores taken care of. I love being able to work without being tied to a schedule.

    On the other hand there are times I worry. Are we covering everything? Thats when i go out and buy workbooks or sign up for an activity. LOL I think a lot of us unschoolers stress out every now and then.

    Our state requires standardized testing every 3 years and we did ours this summer. She tested well enough that we feel pretty confident pursuing this way of life as she continues through the middle and high school years.

    As to non academics. We are pretty strict about food, and toothbrushing, but not so strict about bedtimes.

    1. Samantha says

      Hi Ellen,

      Thank-you so much for your insightful comment. I am learning so much about this unschooling movement, and frankly, I find it fascinating. Having never heard of it prior to the article that I mentioned in the original post, I’ve realized that it is a very popular method of teaching children. As noted in previous comments, I do have some trepidation about doing this for my own kids because I’m somewhat risk averse when it comes to their education. This is more likely because I’m not confident in my own abilities to teach well - it’s not my forte. I’d be afraid that I’d miss something, or get too frustrated, or would somehow skew the lesson and my child would ultimately suffer. Kudos to you and other parents who seem to have it all under control and who are teaching your children via a method that works best for them. So glad that I’ve learned about this and am looking forward to hearing more perspectives from others. Thanks again :)

  7. Aadel says

    Great comment thread!

    We started out homeschooling our oldest 8 years ago - for several reasons (one of them being that we are military and move often). After about 3 years of trying to imitate school at home, we relaxed and moved towards unschooling.

    Unschooling to us means more about the relationship than the educational method. We let our kids have more say - a more democratic environment rather than just choosing every rule and activity for them. We let them have freedom in their activities and try to value the learning going on when they are engaged in something they love to do. My oldest is 12 and has improved her math and grammar skills from playing Minecraft and other online games, rather than sitting and doing a traditional curriculum.

    Our general principles are that everything is an opportunity to learn, that children can’t be forced to learn (it has to come from within - we can teach all we want but they can shut us out), and that responsibility and self-control are learned through having freedom to be responsible and make decisions.

    That doesn’t negate our parenting whatsoever - it simply sets us as gentle guides. We build up a trust relationship with our kids so that when we do suggest something they are more likely to trust our older, wiser logic. And it doesn’t negate consequences - letting children choose freely puts them up against real consequences rather than our created ones (punishments and rewards). They see the need for math and language skills because they are making choices in a real world with real challenges.

    1. Samantha says

      Aadel, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts about unschooling, and how it has worked for your family. I am heartened by the fact that so many parents will do whatever it takes to give their kids the best education possible. In some cases, it’s conventional school; in others, it’s unschooling. Your children have clearly benefited from the choice that you have made on their behalf. I think the larger topic here is choice - that is, each parent has to be able to make the decision about their child that should supersede anyone else’s. After all, who knows their kid best, right? It worked for you and many others. This blog post has been the start of a real learning experience for me and I’m so glad that I’ve been provided with information on this topic. Thanks again.

    1. Samantha says

      Frank, if anyone was on the fence about unschooling their child, you have given them an incredibly compelling reason about why they should consider this form of education for their kids. Your time with your family traveling and teaching them about the world is truly priceless and I can certainly see how one would choose this methodology of teaching over the conventional. Sounds like unschooling was the the best thing for your family.

  8. ConnorsMama says

    I plan on a modified version of unschooling for my kiddo. He will still go to regular school, but as I work from home on a VERY open schedule, if he is curious about something, we can go for a field trip of sorts to explore it. I live in such a history and science rich area of our country! With a 2-5 hour drive from home, we can go anywhere in the state. The mountains, the city, the rivers, the ocean, the desert… We have an animal and history museum just 20 miles from town, and 3 great aquariums and a large zoo. Along with a marine history museum, an aviation museum, and a space museum. We are very blessed with so many educational options! But, he will still go to school. And learn responsibility, and respect of rules, and authority.

    1. Samantha says

      That sounds like a great plan that you have for your child. It sounds like he will have the best of both worlds: going th “conventional” route with school, but also having a parent who is willing to allow him to follow his interests and not be too hung up if he misses a day or two of school. Like everything, balance is the key - including how we choose to educate our children. Thanks for your comment and perspective.

  9. Robert Gottlieb says

    Another Radical Unschooler here: It looks very different depending on the family. But the key is that the kids DO NOT run the show. It’s like living with roommates. You don’t make one another do anything, but any given roommate cannot run the show! So what do you do instead? You talk amongst yourselves about how to be respectful to one another. So that’s the living part of Radical Unschooling. The learning part just happens because you are breathing. In other words you cannot stop a child from learning unless you put them in an environment where the love of learning is taken away somehow (public school, war zone, abusive parents, you get the idea). Now public school is sometimes chosen by unschooling kids for various reasons. As parents we are obliged to follow their wish (unless there is some undue hardship of course). So Radical Unschooling is very much living life. So these kids grow up to learn about life from living it rather than reading about it. We parents become resource librarians for them. If they are old enough to research for themselves, they are given an iPad, computer, etc (depending on parents budget) or access to the internet somehow. YouTube University, Google, Stanford University, MIT all have free resources for learning. You can, in fact, learn the equivalent of a college degree for free online. This is the world open to kids now. They can learn whatever they want. They can also play video games (tons of learning going on there) and they can watch TV (again tons of learning there as well). This all sounds counterintuitive to what parents are being told nowadays. The catch in all of this is that this is not for the lazy parent. Us parents MUST be involved, i.e. we are available for questions about a given resource. We sit and watch a TV show with them to help them sort through some of what they might not understand. We might buy them traditional school supplies if they need them. We might take them to museums, etc. I can look a lot like a traditional homeschooler at times. But the difference is that we parents are not dictating anything at all to the children. We are respecting them as free individuals. Hope this helps explain it all!

    1. Samantha says

      Hi Robert,
      Thank-you so much for your detailed explanation about unschooling. I must admit that when I wrote the post, I had absolutely no idea about what it was, other than what I had superficially read online. I’ve since been set straight by a number of very engaged and committed parents who have chosen to unschool their kids. I like your analogy about parents being resource librarians which facilitate and support the kids’ various interests. Do you really think, though, that many public schools take away the love of learning? Why is that, in your opinion? Is it because the curriculum is too regimented, or not tailored enough to a particular child’s needs or interests? Anyway, I appreciate your answer and for clarifying Radical Unschooling.

  10. Robert Gottlieb says

    I think Public School takes out the love of learning because there is little to no freedom for the kids, i.e. they can’t go to the bathroom when they need to, they are tested on their knowledge based on a standard that has nothing to do with them, they typically (not all schools are this way) cannot move further ahead in a certain area. They are taught in subjects (Math, Science, History, etc) but life doesn’t break down into subjects neatly. Life is about everything mixed together. So if you cannot learn about math by using history or science then there is no association between them. But overall this frustrates children not to feel free to do as they need to for their own creativity. So the natural state of children is to love to learn. They need to know how to read in order to play a game, for instance. This gives them joy when they figure it out! Sure some of this can happen in schools as well, but teaching nowadays is done to a mandated test. So it doesn’t leave room for much, if any, creativity. Children crave creativity, it’s how they learn. And the idea of a curriculum itself is another concept that doesn’t work. There is no one size fits all curriculum. Think about what you like to learn about as an adult. if you decided to learn how to create a web page, but you were told you first had to learn advanced math, or history wouldn’t that frustrate you? Wouldn’t you just want to learn about web pages themselves? It’s the same for kids. So even though this may look out of balance, it really ends up balanced in the end. Kids learn on demand what they need when they need it. It’s actually quite fun and awe inspiring to watch! Oh and I hope I didn’t make it sound like you should know all of this. I am just giving an explanation and not criticizing you in any way. I’m just thrilled that you are asking the question!

  11. Frank says

    My opinion, worth every penny you paid for it (wink):

    “Normal” school absolutely does wring the love and pleasure of learning from most kids. I always say that I needed a decade after university before I could *enjoy* a poem or take pleasure from a new discovery in physics. I was also a teacher once up on a time (Side note: You’ll find lots of teachers and former teachers in the unschooling universe.) and I’ve seen relatives and friends go through the typical school experience. It is almost universally destructive to a sense of self and the joy of discovery. Making messes, getting things wrong, having serendipitous experiences is what life is about, not moving in lockstep, memorizing and regurgitating meaningless factoids and trivial tidbits. That’s not “real life” and it’s not preparing you for “real life.” Living in the real world is real life and that’s what we unschoolers do. Even people who are not unschoolers, or even homeschoolers, recognize the utter failure of our educational system. Read John Taylor Gattor. Read Esme Codell. Lemme tell you about my experiences as a teacher.

    To answer your specific final questions: Because curriculum is too regimented and too prescribed and proscribed by testing. Because schools make no effort to accommodate individual learning readiness (some kids are simply NOT ready to read at 6 and are made to feel like failures for that, often for the rest of their school career - or life) or individual learning styles (Gardner’s types of intelligences).

    I like that we have a universal school system here in the US. I know there are people for whom it is a safe and saving place, compared to the rest of their life. However, I truly believe that, by any objective measure, our school system is desperately broken, probably beyond repair.

    1. Samantha says

      Thank-you for your insight and clarification, Frank. I know that you’ve provided food for thought for not only myself, but readers of this blog who may be looking for another educational alternative for their children. The information that you’ve shared is a great starting point for discussion.

  12. Beth says

    Love these comments. Thought I’d share my own. I am still new to unschooling. We are in the beginning of our second year. I was turned on to this idea by a friend while searching for answers for my children’s schooling needs. I did a lot of reading up on this style of learning and I just wanted to say that unschooling is very much an area where it is important to look deeper than first impressions and think deeper than first reactions:)
    There are irresponsible people in all walks of life and I am sure there are some in the unschooling movement too, but what I have found is that unschooling requires more, not less, from parents, because unschooling is fueled by relationship. Unschooling is not at all about “leaving your child to themselves”, it is about empowering them to learn and consciously giving them the tools and the space they need to do it in, in every way that is healthy for them. I think that varies from family to family what that is going to look like. None of us have cookie cutter needs.
    My oldest son was pretty locked up from his experiences in classroom style learning. He doesn’t handle competition well and was shutting down and becoming afraid of learning. When we embarked on our unschooling journey he was really having a hard time with reading. The answer for him was a flashlight, Calvin and Hobbes comic books, and permission to stay up as long as he wanted to as long as he was in bed reading. When the pressure was gone and he was left to himself with that flashlight, the magic happened. It was fun to watch him change. It was slow at first. But then, I would go tuck him in at night and he’s be busting up laughing and having to show me the funniest parts.:) I made myself leave him alone. Every now and then I’d get scared and have him read me something so I could see how he was doing, but I really tried to keep my hands off and to be encouraging. I’d catch relieving glimpses of what was happening inside him, like when he started commenting more and more on signs and billboards while we were driving. When I found him reading for recreation during the day I knew we had turned the corner. And its been downhill ever since. He’s doing great!
    We are still learning as a family what unschooling means and how to live it, I still get scared at times and reach for “crutches”, but the kids don’t take to the crutches well, they reject the fear in me, and I figure it out and we keep moving forward. I wouldn’t tag us radical, but Rome wasn’t built in a day and there is a lot of parental mindset changing involved in this path. It’s not an overnight switch, it’s a journey. And a very rewarding one at that. My children are learning everyday and I am learning with them. I think they are going to become amazing, creative, capable adults.

    1. Samantha says

      Hi Beth,

      Thank-you so much for sharing your personal story about unschooling. It sounds like the decision to follow this type of education has worked well for your son. Like you mentioned in your comment, you’re right - there are likely those in the movement who are perhaps not following the best course of action in terms of how they implement the philosophy, but that can be found in conventional education facilities and models as well. It’s all about the relationship, as I have learned from the folks who have been kind enough to share their own experiences with unschooling with me on this thread. Clearly unschooling is a methodology that works, as evidenced by the many parents and kids who are thriving with it. Like anything, it requires effort and commitment to see positive results. So glad to hear that it’s working well for you :)

  13. Jennye Blain says

    We never considered anything but regular public school until our school got a new principal who bullied our 9 yr old to the extent that we were forced to pull her (and her brother) out. Growing up steeped in academia, I never realized there even was a different way, and unschooling initially sounded, well, too easy - lazy even…but the more I read, the more my respect for the idea grew - and, having pulled my kids out unplanned, I saw it in action even as I researched the myriad educational options available to us, and realized the only thing that had to change was me! Instead of automatically saying no to things that seem silly, I have learned to say yes, where normally I might chastise my child for making a mess, or wasting something, I ask what they learned from their experiment, and ask myself, isn’t it worth an egg here, a highlighter there, a puddle of shampoo mixed with vinegar there? And as parents, our job is simply to help them explore and understand, to expand their pperspectives and expose them to as much of “life, the universe, and everything” as is humanly possible.
    We have only been at it a few months, but it has changed everything. Our children no longer see us as oppositional authoritarian figures, allied against our children with other adults, but as older, more experienced partners in exploring the world, no more cranky fighting and bickering with/between overtired, overstressed, overwhelmed children. No more working around school, getting them to bed too early so they can be on time in the morning, grumpy, bleary, and resentful, but there. There to be Told when they can use the bathroom, eat, drink, sit, stand, run, etc. Why did I ever think that was ok for anyone, let alone a child? Only wish I had learned this before my child was harmed.Now I am an unschooling evangelist, lol!

    1. Samantha says

      You certainly are an evangelist, Jennye! Sounds like going the unschooling route was the right one for your family. Glad to hear that it has been a positive experience for you and the kids. Whatever works, right? What works for some may not work for others - it’s all about finding what does work and sticking to it. Thanks for commenting :)