Candid Thoughts on Unschooling

 

Field trip to the zoo.

My oldest child will turn 16 this summer. Since he will be starting college in just two years, we have been doing a lot of prep work. This process has really opened my eyes to what has worked and what hasn’t over the last 11 years of homeschooling him. We have mostly unschooled, and I have been evaluating that choice lately – both because he will be starting college soon, and because I have two younger children and I’d like to use my experience to do even better for them.

PROS OF UNSCHOOLING

- Kids enjoy learning because it is not a chore and not forced upon them. When schooling becomes a dreaded chore, kids quickly associate learning with something unpleasant, something to avoid. My son is a voracious reader, enjoys non-fiction books and television, and just loves to learn new things. He has spent years making up and solving math problems just because he wants to, filling in workbooks for fun, and stopping to read every sign at aquariums, zoos, and museums to learn more.

- Kids live out the fact that living and learning are not two separate things; learning is everywhere and happening all the time! This may sound like a “hokey” idea; it did to me when I was starting out. But I have been absolutely amazed by how true it is. When he was young, my son learned the roman numerals from reading Hardy Boys books (the chapters are labeled with roman numerals), and counting by 5′s and 10′s from playing the Pokemon card game. He learned to read by reading, and learned math from cooking, gardening, and shopping. He has learned so much about science and history from field trips, projects, and watching documentaries. He’s learned spelling and grammar from reading and from writing short stories, and having me edit them.

- Life is an adventure. Without a schedule needed to sit down and “do school” every day, we have been free to go on gobs of field trips and outings, play games and do projects at home, take classes in the community, travel, and generally follow our fancy – learning a lot all along the way.

CONS OF UNSCHOOLING

- There is no set routine. Kids need the comfort of routine and the discipline of positive daily habits. While you can set a schedule even without formal homeschooling, it’s not as likely to happen or to stick.

- There are no formal outside requirements on the kids. Let’s face it – kids need to learn the life skills of diligently fulfilling outside expectations (they’ll likely have a job and boss one day). They need to learn to follow rules and do things right when working. And they’ll need practice with study skills, time management, and completing work without getting distracted.

CONCLUSION

I am very pleased with what unschooling has done for us over the past 11 years, and how my son has turned out as a result. I believe he’ll do fine in college and in life.

That said, I also believe that he could have some better skills and habits, and could have more practice for what lies ahead of him. I do feel that we should have had some formality to our days.

So with my two younger children, you won’t find us “doing school at home” daily, but you will find us mixing unschooling with more of a daily routine and more practice in the life skills mentioned above.

Unschooling works, but you do have to be even more disciplined to be sure to provide lots of reading, field trips & outings, and educational experiences and resources. You must be sure to teach your children self-discipline and how to fulfill outside expectations. If they’re college-bound, you’ll also want to add in practice with note-taking and studying as well.

What are your experiences with unschooling?

Tanya has been mostly unschooling for over eleven years, and has three children. She blogs about homeschooling, gardening, cooking, and more at So Happy Together.

Comments

  1. Thanks for posting this. We are in the process of changing our homeschool ways once again. We are still playing around with what works. It’s good to see someone post pro’s and con’s of both as well as someone that has experience with an older child.

  2. It sure sounds like you are doing all the right things! I really enjoyed reading your post. Keeping formality is something I have a hard time with, but helps my girls thrive.
    Many Thanks, Karen

  3. Elizabeth says:

    I’ve found that the whole, “fulfilling outside expectations” thing is taken care of with outside activities, like sports, science co-ops, and any sort of volunteer or work situation where you have to be at a certain place at a certain time.

    And personally, as a public schooled (many,many different ones, moved a lot) child who was bright, i went into college with ZERO study habits, as I had never needed them. It wasn’t until my third year of college that I actually needed to study for a test, and I easily figured out how to do it. I just took lots of notes and got together with my classmates to study.

    Like everything else, the learning happens when it’s needed.

    • Its funny how we automatically assume that one mode of schooling automatically confers certain things onto a child. I find it interesting that you went through school with no study habits taught to you. Thanks for sharing your experience, Elizabeth!

  4. I’m just getting my feet wet as a homeschooling mom. I was homeschooled myself but its a whole different ballgame as a mom! Thanks for all the great articles and resources!

  5. I do the same thing! Two of our children have already graduated and are in college. I frequently ask them about what worked and what we could have better prepared them for and we adjust to hopefully make it even better. We have 5 still at home that get to benefit from these conversations.

  6. I love what unschooling has brought to our family. We have a routine we go by during the week. But if something comes up where we get an opportunity to go visit my sister who lives out of town we go. Even when visiting we can kind of keep to our routine.

    We are involved in volunteer work and that helps the kids to deal with set schedules for certain things with that and with our faith we have weekly bible study and research so they are learning good study habits from that. I’m not to worried about what to expect for college although it’s a long way off for us. My kiddos are only 8, but your post has given me some things to think about and I’m going to mosey over to your blog. Thank you for sharing your insights.

  7. I really enjoyed reading about unschooliing.
    I am a homeschool mom of 4…1 of which is in her second year of college and another ready to graduate. We have done the “traditional” homeschool of sitting in front of books for the last 15 years…it worked well for us.
    But, how refreshing, to hear an alternative.
    I have two more still to finish and may integrate some “unschooling” next year.
    Thanks!!

  8. I would love to be more of an unschooler, but our state requires documented hours. I feel like I have to plan something to get those hours recorded.

  9. I really admire parents that can make unschooling work for their families. I’m the kind of person that needs a plan! I want a plan that tells me when and where we will be learning something. Of course, being a mom of five has taught me that a plan is simply a plan–not usually a reality. If I had to do this homeschooling thing all over again, I believe I would lean a bit more in the unschooling direction.

  10. Thanks for your honesty in this post. I usually hear only pros for unschooling, but there are pros and cons for everything. We still have very young ones, but are figuring out what we should do for school. I like what you have said about routines, this is something I really need to work on now, before it gets too out of hand.

  11. We are at the beginning of our homeschooling journey (my oldest is 4) and I love to get the perspective of mamas who have gone before, so thank you! I thought of myself as an unschooler before we even had kids but when my daughter was 2 I realized that both of us needed more structure and routine, and a way to balance the different types of activities that I wanted us to include for the preschool years (free play, art, baking, nature walks, reading, playdates, etc.) as well as housework, taking care of the baby etc…I found the waldorf concept of “rhythm” to be a great fit for us, and since then have incorporated much of the waldorf philosophy into our home life. By now we have hit a sweet spot where we have a regular routine that allows a lot of breathing room for child-directed learning and play, and I think of us now as eclectic interest-led homeschoolers. I’m excited to see how it all develops as my kids get older, and one of the things I LOVE about homeschooling is this ability to change, adapt, meet needs, grow, learn, and be flexible over the years. I think it’s great that you are seeing the pros and cons of your approach and adapting to meet your next goal of college! :)

  12. That’s great that your state is so flexible for it’s requirements. To be sure you’re meeting the criteria just document your life! For instance, if they helped you make dinner you write that down as: math, science, home ec, reading (as in the recipe), history (if you talked about history of what you’re making – even the story behind a family recipe!). Be creative! So many of our activities throughout the day have multiple ways to count the hours!

  13. Interesting. My son just finished his first year of college and he unschooled during his “high school” years.

    He was accepted into the college’s honor program and made the Dean’s List his first semester in college.

    We had nearly no schedule or routine to our days and he adjusted far better to college than did his peers.

    I’m not writing this to brag, but to illustrate that experiences are unique and individual. I’m hesitant to predict that all unschoolers would have an experience similar to my son’s and I’m equally hesitant to prescribe more routine or scheduling to others.

  14. I really appreciated hearing your thoughts. I have young(ger) kids (6.5, 3.5 and a baby) and our philosophy is unschooling, but I’ve learned over the past year or so that we do need a daily rhythm and if I don’t want to go into the “formal schooling” type schedule I need to establish a strong daily rhythm that works for us.

    I’m feeling so much better about it as I can identify “down” and “up” times of the day and help offer experiences that fit the energy of that time of day. For example, there’s a time in the afternoon where the kids are so happy to listen to audio stories, but if I offered them in the morning it wouldn’t work.

    Also, my six year old loves staying up late and sleeping in. At night–after the other kids have gone to sleep we play dice games/card games and I see a lot of learning happening. Someone might think it’s crazy that we’re doing “math” at night before bed, but it’s working for us and I really value that.

    Thanks again for such a thoughtful post.

  15. Thanks for all of these comments. I’m just starting out with homeschooling so still exploring everything.