Unschooling: What Is It and Does It Really Work?

This year has had parents considering all kinds of alternative school methodologies, with unschooling being one of the most unique. But what exactly is unschooling and could it work for your tot?

kids being unschooled

With schools around the world going virtual this year due to Covid-19, many of us have found ourselves trying to navigate the world of teaching and homeschooling. If you’re homeschooling your child this year, or even just trying to supplement their virtual learning at home, you may have come across the term “unschooling”.

If, like so many parents, you’ve struggled to motivate your child with virtual learning, the very term “unschooling” may sound tempting. But what exactly is unschooling? Is it as radical as it sounds? And does it actually work?


What is Unschooling?


As its name implies, unschooling is a bit of a backlash against traditional schools. It refutes the idea that children, who are naturally curious and creative beings, need to sit in a desk all day and have facts drilled into them. 

A former teacher named John Holt, author of Learning All the Time, started the unschooling movement in the 1970’s. As his former colleague writes, he started the movement in response to what he observed in his classrooms – namely that children were memorizing facts for tests, but not actually learning much in the long term.

While the term unschooling was coined in the 70’s, it’s really a throwback to how children were educated prior to widespread formal schooling — to how they’re still educated in some parts of the world. Holt believed that children learn best from being out in the world, from being a part of their community, and from having deep conversations with their parents and trusted mentors, unhindered by the anxieties that often accompany school.

Unschooling can look very different for different families, but at its core it is child-led learning where the child’s natural curiosity and interests, rather than any set curriculum, determines the day’s activities.


What about math?


If you’re trying to imagine what your own child might do if given complete freedom over their day, you might wonder where things like math come in. Many children love books so it’s easier to see how an interest in learning to read would naturally develop, but how many children develop an interest in say algebra or calculus, all on their own?

With the unschooling approach, skills like math are built into a child’s daily life and interests wherever possible. 

For example, if a child is interested in building forts and structures, they might need to learn about geometry, ratios and how to accurately measure things.

If a child is interested in animals, they might learn about numbers in studying about population sizes of different animal species or migration patterns.

The idea is that if a child is allowed to follow their natural passions as far as they like, to achieve that deepest level of focus and learning, they will naturally learn the skills they need to succeed in the world.


What is the parent’s role?


So if they’re not exactly a teacher, if they don’t need to research curriculum or drill math equations, what exactly is the parent’s role in unschooling?

The parent is first and foremost seen as a partner in the child’s education.

The parent’s job is to observe their child, provide an intellectually stimulating environment, and help their child find the resources they need to follow their interests.

This might include seeking out a science class for a child interested in learning about rocks or a soccer team for a child who wants to learn to play soccer. It is not that classes are never included in unschooling, but rather that the choice to attend a class is child-led.

The parent might also support their child’s learning by finding books to support different interests or seeking out experts in the community. They might find an engineer to mentor their child or an artist to share her methods with an artistically inclined child.


Is unschooling legal?


In short, yes, unschooling is legal. However, homeschooling laws vary by state so make sure to look into the specific requirements in your own state if you’re considering unschooling. Some states require documentation or standardized tests. 


Is it all or nothing? 


While you won’t technically be unschooling if your child attends a traditional school, you can certainly incorporate some of the concepts if you like the idea of following your child’s intellectual interests.

This is especially true if your child is doing virtual learning this year, which often doesn’t take as long as the normal school day.

If you’re interested in the approach but aren’t ready to pull the plug on school entirely, try a subtle shift in your own mindset. Try observing your child and what they are naturally drawn to and try to see the learning potential hidden there. You just might find an approach both you and your child love. 


Does unschooling actually work? 


While unschooling does have many pros, such as supporting a child’s natural curiosity and love of learning, it also has limitations. If a family chooses a strictly unschooling approach, children may have gaps in their learning. 

For example, they may never learn geometry or calculus unless their own interests lead them to pursue higher level math. They may not learn enough science to be accepted to a pre-med program if they decide they want to be a doctor.

This doesn’t mean an unschooled child can’t be a successful, productive member of society, but it does mean they could face limitations.

For most families, perhaps the best approach is trying to incorporate some of the principles of unschooling alongside more traditional education. Parents can do this by leaving plenty of unscheduled time on afternoons and weekends and encouraging children’s budding interests in bugs, volcanos, painting, or whatever else they may be. This encourages children to find learning opportunities in day-to-day life, while also ensuring they receive the education necessary to pursue their ambitions as adults.



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