“Unschooling”, a term originally coined by John Holt in the 1970s, is a form of home education (2). It can mean different things to different people but generally it denotes a form of natural learning that is not associated with any methods of formal teaching or assessment at school or at home. It is an approach to learning and to life which follows the child’s natural curiosity and interests. The parent plays a key role in actively partnering the child and facilitating learning through their interests and engagement with the world.
“We can best help children learn, not by deciding what we think they should learn and thinking of ingenious ways to teach it to them, but by making the world, as far as we can, accessible to them, paying serious attention to what they do, answering their questions — if they have any — and helping them explore the things they are most interested in.” ― John Holt (1)
Radical Unschoolers extend this way of living into all areas of their lives and work to create a nurturing environment where their child’s emotional wellbeing and connected relationships with their families are of primary importance. This is the type of unschooling that I am going to describe here.
We have two daughters (ages 9yrs and 5yrs) who have never been to nursery or school, and an unschooling way of life has been a natural progression for us evolving from an attachment based parenting approach (3). We have helped to facilitate our children’s close and connected attachment to us, by meeting their needs for emotional security and connection by breastfeeding responsively, bed-sharing and carrying them throughout the early years and beyond.
Building an Unschooling Nest
An unschooling approach builds on trusting relationships between parent and child, and understanding that children learn best when they feel joyful, safe and relaxed. It is in prioritising the child’s needs that trusting relationships grow which form the foundation for positive mental health and emotional wellbeing in childhood, adolescence, and throughout life (4). Sandra Dodd, author and unschooling advocate (5), created the term ‘Unschooling Nest’ to describe a rich and engaging environment, where supportive family relationships and the emotional climate of the home form the foundations on which unschooling can thrive (6).
‘Doing Unschooling Right’ by Sandra Dodd, where she talks about the importance of the unschooling nest: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bzhBsjkrM8E
Unschooling Builds on a Child’s Natural Curiosity and Interest in Exploring the World
Children learn through their natural curiosity and interest in engaging with the world around them, and if their parent is able to act as a secure base they can explore the world together (7). An unschooling parent partners their child, by both bringing the world to the child and by venturing out and making the world more accessible and available to them in ways that feel safe and meaningful to the individual child. Each family’s unschooling experience will be unique because of this.
Unschooling is not Child-led Learning but Based on a Partnership Paradigm
A parent can help facilitate their child’s interests and passions by nurturing their natural curiosity and desire to explore. A parent will also make suggestions and offer choices and opportunities that the child otherwise may not have discovered or thought of alone. An unschooling parent grows to know their child and has a relationship based on trust and understanding their child’s individual needs and personal preferences.
The relationship between parent and child has been described as like a dance:
“Unschooling is more like a dance between partners who are so perfectly in synch with each other that it is hard to tell who is leading. The partners are sensitive to each others’ little indications, little movements, slight shifts and they respond. Sometimes one leads and sometimes the other”. Pam Sorooshian (8).
Play is Learning
Unschooling families recognise that children learn most effectively when they play. The value of play in relation to learning is being increasingly recognised. In ‘Free to Learn’ Peter Gray explores the evolutionary context in which play has developed and the rich learning that takes place while children play (9). Play is the mechanism by which children learn the skills and knowledge that are useful in our society. At present children are drawn to exploring computers and technology because they are interesting and they intuitively understand they are tools of our culture (9).
Unschooling families can create environments where children can play in ways they enjoy and find meaningful throughout the day. There are many benefits of parents and children playing together (10) (11). We have noticed that our children particularly enjoy playing with us and we engage in all types of imaginary, creative and constructive play together. An unschooling parent can be particularly good at playing with their children as they can play in ways that are specifically tailored to their individual child’s needs and developmental level. We can partner our children in their play, being sensitive to when they would like us to stand back, and when they would like us to be more involved. Freedom to play brings joy and learning in unschooling families.
Intellectual, cognitive and emotional development can progress differently for each individual child. Unschooling is particularly suited to meeting each child’s specific needs and taking into account their preferences and developmental readiness. Unschooling families do not need to be constrained by arbitrary rules, curriculums or classes. A child’s capacities and skills can unfold to their own unique timescale and developmental level. A parent can support their child and facilitate their experiences and their learning exactly where they are at that time. There is no need to rush or push a child before they are interested or ready. A number of studies have demonstrated the damaging effects of coercion and control on children’s learning and emotional wellbeing (12) and unschooling frees families from those pressures.
An unschooling approach trusts a child’s intrinsic motivation to learn what they are interested in and what is useful to them as and when they are ready. Children learn to read and write without coercion because they live in a print rich culture (often digital) where their environment is full of the written word, and they are motivated to do so as it usually has a practical relevance to their lives. Our daughter has learnt to read and write through her desire to communicate in internet forums and whilst playing online games with friends from all over the world.
“Since we can’t know what knowledge will be most needed in the future, it is senseless to try to teach it in advance. Instead, we should try to turn out people who love learning so much and learn so well that they will be able to learn whatever must be learned.” – John Holt (13)
Rather than believing that there is a specific set of knowledge that must be learned at a particular time and in a particular way, unschooling advocates an approach which fosters a love of learning and living joyfully. Children are intrinsically motivated to explore and research what is useful to them. At 9yrs our daughter has already learnt many of the skills useful in independent research but also draws on our help to gain knowledge of areas in which she is interested.
Unschooling families can provide their children with resources and opportunities for diverse and varied experiences suited to their individual children’s needs. We travel to museums, galleries, aquariums, zoos, farms and many other interesting places we like to explore. The children enjoy riding horses, climbing, riding their bikes, swimming, cinema and lots of activities with us and their friends. They make lots of meaningful connections to the things they are learning as part of their everyday lives and they are able to follow their interests over time.
Unschooled children are also free to relax and spend time in ways that they enjoy, just being, thinking and reflecting on their experiences and their lives, learning in conversation with their parents without the pressure of scheduled routines and activities.
Learning is Everywhere
Unschooling well will involve the parent being able to see and appreciate the learning that is happening in their children’s lives all of the time. Learning is not divided into discrete subjects but is seen as part of everyday life and experience. Parents will benefit from understanding the learning which is happening in all the activities that their children love. If parents do not spend time engaged with them and sharing their children’s passions and interests they may miss out on their children’s learning. They may not realise the complexity of the learning which is taking place and the meanings the child is developing, and therefore not be able to effectively facilitate it.
Moving Away from Labelling
Children in unschooling families have the freedom to grow up without being confined and restricted by labels which may be part of the process of attending school. Both positive and negative labels may come to act in ways which may limit and define children before their identities have fully emerged. Unschooling parents have the luxury of choosing not to label their children and instead choose to focus on meeting their children’s individual needs.
The Relationship Comes First: Emotional Wellbeing as the Foundation for Learning
“Put the relationship first and then figure out how to fit everything else around that.” – Joyce Fetteroll. (14)
Unschooling parents place the relationship first. Parents and children enjoy spending time together and parents give their time and attention generously so that their children feel loved and cared for. Emotional wellbeing is the foundation on which development and learning will thrive, so unschooling parents will invest in nurturing their attachments and developing close relationships.
Attentive and Engaged Parenting
“Unschooling is not unparenting; freedom to learn is not license to do whatever you want.” – Pat Farenga. (15)
Unschooling does not mean leaving a child to do whatever they want without parental support. It means being attentive, present and engaged and partnering a child in a way that helps them to negotiate situations they may find difficult. Emotional and behavioural difficulties arise if children are not feeling safe, understood and connected with their parents. A child may struggle if they find themselves in situation where their needs are not being met and they are developmentally unable to manage. A child may feel overwhelmed by too much noise, too many people and may feel pressured by a situation that is not suited to their personality and needs.
An unschooling parent will come to know their child’s natural rhythms, their likes, dislikes and preferences and can prioritise these in order to support their child’s wellbeing and their learning. Unschooling parents are aware of the types of relationships and environments in which their individual child thrives and because of the flexible nature of unschooling they can arrange their days around this.
Unschooling and the Wider Community
One of the benefits of an unschooling approach is the flexibility that parents and children have to follow their own unique agenda. Some families use this opportunity to travel and explore the world (16). There are unschooling networks in various countries across the world and online support groups that can help parents meet and stay connected, both on and offline. Children and their families also have the opportunity of being connected and engaged within their local communities by taking part in various community groups and events. Children may take up classes, both paid and voluntary work in the community and they may choose to attend college and University. Unschooled children and young people meet children and people of a variety of different ages and backgrounds during the course of their everyday lives (both on and off line); this makes for varied and rich relationships within both local and global communities.
Peter Gray and Gina Riley have looked at the experience of unschoolers and their families in two main research studies. 1) They surveyed 232 unschooling families and found that the main reported benefits of unschooling were: “ improved learning, better attitudes about learning, and improved psychological and social wellbeing, including closeness, harmony, and freedom for the whole family free of school schedule.” (17)
2) Gray & Riley, also asked 75 grown unschoolers for their reflections on their experience of unschooling and what they had gone on to pursue as adults (18). Many of the participants valued the time and freedom unschooling had given them to follow their interests and passions and the sense of responsibility they had developed for their own lives. Most of the unschoolers said they felt happy with their social lives and felt they had been well connected with the community, where they had met friends of a broad age range, through classes, activities and employment (18).
What Happens to Grown Unschoolers?
“The main advantage of unschooling was that it supported me in understanding myself clearly and helping me craft an adult life which is meaningful to me. I do not identify as ever having stopped unschooling. I am continuing to learn as much as I did as a youth.” (19)
In the study of grown unschoolers, 83% said they had gone on to some formal higher education; 44% had completed or were completing a bachelor’s degree program. The unschoolers who did not pursue higher education did so because they felt it was not required for their career choice and felt that they could learn what they needed to know independently or via an alternative route (19).
Gray and Riley report: “Concerning careers, despite their young median age, most were gainfully employed and financially independent. A high proportion of them—especially of those in the always-unschooled group—had chosen careers in the creative arts; a high proportion were self-employed entrepreneurs; and a relatively high proportion, were in STEM careers. Most felt that their unschooling benefited them for higher education and careers by promoting their sense of personal responsibility, self-motivation, and desire to learn.” (19)
The lives of Unschooled Teens and Grown Unschoolers
In ‘Homeschooled Teens’, Sue Patterson documents the accounts of 75 home educated/unschooled young people. We hear directly what their lives are like from their own unique perspectives. The teens describe the varied lives they lead: their interests and passions, their relationships with family, friends and the wider community, their experience of college and university and the jobs they have secured both as teens and later as adults (20).
Pam Laricchia also has a wonderful podcast series available online, where many unschooling parents describe one of the biggest benefits of unschooling as the close and connected relationships they continue to have with their children throughout their teen years and into adulthood (21).
Unschooling TED Talks
Cassie Vandewiele, PhD student at Cambridge University describes her experience of unschooling and summarise some of the research and outcomes by Peter Gray.
Andre Stern, music composer, guitar maker, author and journalist is a grown unschooler. In this TED talk he shares some of his own experiences of being unschooled and his unique insights into trusting children and their natural curiosity and enthusiasm to learn.
Joshua Steimle, digital marketing entrepreneur and author, discuss their family’s decision to unschool their children in Hong Kong. Joshua looks at the history of mainstream schooling and explores why unschooling is a valuable alternative.
Laine Liberti and Miro Siegel, talk about a form of unschooling they describe as Worldschooling.
Logan Laplante, describes a type of unschooling which he calls ‘hackschooling’.
Unschooling Links and Resources
www.unschoolingsupport.com – Podcasts by Amy Childs
www.sandradodd.com – Website and unschooling resources by Sandra Dodd
www.livingjoyfully.ca – Website, podcasts, introduction to unschooling series by Pam Laricchia
www.johnholtgws.com – Website featuring the work of John Holt curated and maintained by Pat Farenga, includes Pat’s writing and blog.
www.joyfullyrejoycing.com – Website and unschooling resources by Joyce Fetteroll
www.fortheloveoflearningshow.com – Unschooling and alternative learning progrommes host Lainie Liberti and producer Nina Downer
www.learninghappens.wordpress.com – Unschooling blog by Pam Sorooshian
www.unschoolingmom2mom.com – Website and resources for unschoolers
www.suepatterson.com – Website and unschooling resources by Sue Patterson.
www.lifelearningmagazine.com/selected_articles_from_Life_Learning_Magazine.htm – Magazine edited by Wendy Priesnitz featuring accessible online articles about unschooling and life learning.
www.radicalunschoolers.uk – Website and unschooling resources by Emma Marie Forde
www.parentingforsocialchange.com – Website and unschooling resources by Teresa Graham Brett
www.naturalchild.org – Attachment parenting and unschooling resources by Jan Hunt
- Holt, J. (1990). Learning All The Time. DaCapo Press.
- Dewar, G. (2014). http://www.parentingscience.com/attachment-parenting.html
- Howe, D. (2011). Attachment Across the Life Course: A Brief Introduction. Palgrave Macmillan.
- Dodd, S. (2009). Big Book of Unschooling. Lulu.com
- Bowlby (2005) ‘A Secure Base’. Routledge Classics.
- Sorooshian, P. (2011) https://learninghappens.wordpress.com/2011/09/24/unschooling-is-not-child-led-learning/
- Gray, P (2015). Free to Learn. Basic Books.
- Narvaez, D. , Polcari, K. & Ekwueme, P. (2014) https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/moral-landscapes/201404/why-play-child.
- Cohen, L. J. (2012). Playful Parenting. Ballantine Books.
- Kohn, A. (2016). The Myth of the Spoiled Child. Beacon Press.
- Holt, J. (1995). How Children Fail. DaCapo Press.
- Farenga, P. http://www.holtgws.com/whatisunschoolin.html
- Liberti, L. http://www.raisingmiro.com/category/unschooling-2/
- Grey, P. & Riley, G. (2013) V (7) I (14) The Challenges and Benefits of Unschooling, According to 232 Families Who Have Chosen that Route. The Journal of Unschooling and Alternative Education.
- Grey, P. & Riley, G. (2015) Grown Unschoolers’ Evaluations of Their Unschooling Experiences: Report I on a Survey of 75 Unschooled Adults. Other Education. The Journal of Educational Alternatives.
- Grey, P. & Riley, G. (2015) (4) (2) Grown Unschoolers’ Experiences with Higher Education and Employment: Report II on a Survey of 75 Unschooled Adults. Other Education. The Journal of Educational Alternatives.
- Patterson, S. (2015). Homeschooled Teens. Second Tier Publising.
- Laricchia, P. (2016) Unschooling podcasts. http://livingjoyfully.ca/podcast-2/