To School…or…Not?

As my son begins his last year of preschool, I listen with anticipation — and could that be a little dread? — from the moms whose children have started kindergarten. Although there are admittedly many children who come home brimming with information, genuinely excited about everything about school, I can’t help but hone in on the challenges and frustrations some of the moms share. Only twenty minutes of recess? How could she possibly need ten glue sticks? Homework — in kindergarten? The school really sent home a fundraising packet the first week of school?

What are the alternatives, you may ask? Some families enroll their children in private schools and some are aficionados of different charter schools. Austin has a robust homeschooling community, composed of families who have decided for various reasons to opt-out of public schools. I recently heard about another approach — unschooling — and was curious to learn more about this philosophy.

According to Wikipedia, unschooling is a philosophy “centered on allowing children to learn through their natural life experiences, including child directed play, game play, household responsibilities, work experience, and social interaction, rather than through a more traditional school curriculum.” Author and educator John Holt is widely recognized as the “father” of unschooling and Sandra Dodd is another well-known advocate of this philosophy. Although you keep your children at home, you are not homeschooling in the traditional sense, since you are not following a set curriculum.

An ABC News report (which was frowned upon by unschooling proponents) estimated that of the 1.5 million children being homeschooled, 10% are unschooled. Nine states, including Texas, do not have any laws about unschooling or homeschooling, meaning that parents can simply notify the district that a child will not be attending classes and not run afoul of the law.

One of the first things I learned about unschooling is that, by nature, it can be hard to define. Joyce Fetteroll, who maintains a comprehensive website about unschooling called Joyfully Rejoycing, states, “The goal of unschooling is not education. It is to help a child be who she is and blossom into who she will become. Learning happens as a side effect.”

I was lucky to connect with three moms who were willing to share their perspectives on unschooling. Jessica Arellano, here in Austin, has been unschooling her son Elliot, 10, for over a year after her family made the decision to pull him out of a public elementary school. Hannah Ford, also in Austin, found unschooling before she started a family and plans to unschool her son Sylvan, who is now 2. Lauren Fisher is an Australian mom to four girls under 6 and found the philosophies a good fit for her family’s lifestyle and past experiences.

The moms had different critiques on the value of school. Jessica comes from a family of educators, and admits that school is great for some kids, but just not Elliot. Although Elliot had always had trouble in school, it wasn’t until fourth grade that she noticed signs of low self-esteem and depression which eventually led to the family’s decision to try something “totally different”. Hannah had experience as a teacher in Japan and as a substitute in the States, all of which made her question the traditional educational model and want something different for her children. Lauren realized using a workbook to teach reading to her oldest daughter was not effective, but that on her own her daughter would find joy in “her own journey of discovery”.Advertisement
Many unschooling families must first grapple with the fact that most parents have attended traditional school and have been socialized to measure children’s development by academic milestones. Parents who choose to unschool often must therefore unschool themselves before unschooling their children. For example, Lauren had to be mindful about thinking learning had to be boring, since her children did not have this institutional baggage. For Jessica, it was nothing short of a total paradigm shift and at first she found herself writing down what she had done each week and feeling uncomfortable with not having a set lesson plan.

So if you are unschooling, what does a typical day look like? Hannah mentioned the concept of strewing: placing items in your child’s life and seeing which things they naturally gravitate towards and taking whatever amount of time he or she wants to explore those things. That might mean a hike on the Greenbelt, a visit to a museum, a week spent building a skateboarding ramp or free play among siblings. Depending on the child and the parents, it may have more or less structure. At some point, unschoolers may decide to attend public school, and most unschooling families support the children’s decision to direct their own learning.

One common thread among Jessica, Hannah and Lauren was the idea that family relationships were paramount. Elliot even mentioned that one of the benefits of unschooling has been more time to spend with family. Lauren pointed out that, “We can focus on relationships where others structure their lives around the timetables of work, school-work and responsibilities. We stay together as a family for many activities, learning to enjoy each others’ company in different settings.”

It is easy to think about your child’s future in academic terms: I hope my son gets in a good college and lands a great job..and is happy. Unschoolers focus on the latter. As Jessica says, “Our goals have always been that our kids be happy and have the foundation and the self-esteem to stand up for themselves and to be who they are, to learn who they are and to have the freedom to explore who they want to be.” In Hannah’s case, she points out that “as parents we have a lot of power. We have access to a lot of things and knowledge of a wider world of what might be possible. So we can make a lot of things happen. Our role would be to do as much of that as we can for our kids.”

The more I learn about unschooling, the less “fringe” it seems. Although I am not sure unschooling would work for our family, it’s good to learn about another perspective and know that it’s out there as we approach kindergarten.

Had you heard about unschooling? What do you think of the approach? How do you think unschooling addresses the shortcomings of the traditional school-based educational model?

Written by: Nicole Basham

About Nicole Basham 793 Articles
A native Austinite and soccer-playing mom, Nicole uses her 10-year-old son as an excuse to rediscover her hometown through his eyes. In Thoreau's words, her mission is to "suck out all the marrow of life", or in her son's words, to cultivate in him a love of "advenchers".

7 Comments on To School…or…Not?

  1. We’re unschooling because at age 3 I realized my son would probably not do well in a traditional school or even structured, adult-led homeschool model. He’s now 8, and my daughter is 4. Discovering along with them about the world and about who they are has brought more joy to my life than I ever thought possible. Of course, we’re not perfect and doubts always arise, particularly when you’re doing something that even some homeschoolers look down on. Thanks for your open, questioning tone.

    I’ve benefited from the work of Dr. Peter Gray at and Mary Hood at . Also there’s a local speaker named Kathy Wilson who does classes in Restitution Parenting , a way of looking at your relationships with your children (and yourself and everyone for that matter) which relies less on coercion and more on understanding.

    Another relaxed homeschooling friend and I spoke with each of them, and they agreed to come for a short conference in February to speak on their specialties as related to families doing home education. Our website should be live soon but you can find us on Facebook and Yahoo Groups under Trust In Learning. We chose February for the conference because that is the month that many private and charter schools require decisions about the next school year.

    Our hope is that our conference gives people tools for discussing that decision as a family. In our opinion, more important than which educational path you choose, and it changes over time, is that you’re all choosing it together.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful post.

  2. This is so interesting!! I wonder how long the unschooling would last–I imagine eventually they’d have to go back to high school to get calculus and chemistry and the kinds of topics you can’t really expose a child to more casually. Or maybe I’m just stuck in the old paradigm. . . I think I would have liked unschooling as a child. Great post!! Am going to send to my friend who home schools. . .

  3. Nice article, Nicole! What I find so appealing about homeschooling or unschooling or I guess anything outside of the traditional school model is that it affords parents the freedom to take hold of a child’s interests and run with them. “You’re really interested in space and astronomy right now? Awesome! Let’s go the space center in Houston friday!” instead of “You’re interested in astronomy right now? Well, it’s time for art, so I need you to put the science materials away.” I think it can really offer a child the opportunity to love learning and to see that everything we do every day can be a learning experience or thought-provoking experience. I think that at a certain point, many kids start to think of learning as something that takes place within the four walls of school, and they aren’t as interested in doing something that may seem educational outside of school. Not all kids, of course. But I think that’s the point you make – these families are recognizing that one size does not fit all families or all children.

  4. I am probably the most like Hannah. I have a 2 year old and we are seriously considering unschooling, that is…continuing what we have been doing for the last 2 years. She has learned how to walk, talk, eat, etc. all own without “lessons” or a curriculum, and she’s even starting to show some pre-reading skills. So I’m inclined to believe what I have been reading: children are inquisitive by nature and will learn if given the opportunity to do so at their own pace and in their own way. I do agree that it is a case of what is best suited for the child, and if she decides she wants to go to school, we will cheerfully support her decision. However, from what I know of her so far, I don’t think she will fit well into a structured model of “now we do this, now we do that, sit down, stand up, etc.” Thanks for your post!

  5. this is a very intriguing concept to me, but i have to admit that i am firmly entrenched in the “old school” (pardon the pun) paradigm. my concerns are these : if a person is allowed to wander through life concentrating only on those things that interest them, how do they develop the discipline to deal with the stuff that is not at all interesting like organizing a household, managing finances, dealing with deadlines and schedules in an employment situation, and/or having to make concessions for other people (again, in a work environment…you know, doing scut work which rarely, if ever, interests someone)?

    if an unschooler does not use higher math in their paths of interest, how do they deal with college? for that matter, how do they become prepared for college entrance exams?

    i would love to hear from unschoolers who are in college or beyond or parents of high school/college age unschoolers.

  6. We have a 3.5 yr old, a 2 yr old and one on the way.

    We are starting ont he path to unschooling – it’s taking us a lot of work to break old habits and thought patterns and some days we just don’t reach our goal, but we’re heading in the right direction.

    In response to Lori – for some people organizing a household or managing finances is interesting, but for those who aren’t interested they either learn or go broke/live in a mess. I was never taught how to manage finances, but as an adult Ive learnt that I don’t like being broke, so it’s important to learn how to budget and manage money. My kids will be exposed to that so even if they are not interested they’ll see me doing it on a daily basis for years on end and will pick it up.

    It’s also easy to learn how to make concessions for others in day to day life, but the difference in unschooling is that the kids learn how to CHOOSE to make those concession they aren’t FORCED to make those concessions. They are also more likely to learn to stick to their guns when the co-worker (or who ever) should be the one to concede, rather than many schooled kids who learn that the second someone with more power tells them something they jump.

    I personally have a university degree – never used higher math in it – though math was an interest. My husband enjoys math, and our older DD is showing a lot of interest in numbers (can add and subtract numbers from 1-10 with relative success, but at the very least understands the concept she’s dealing with.

    Also not everyone’s path ends in university or even ‘higher’ education. Personally I think I’d have done better had I not bothered with university – in fact there are really only 2 things that came of it that I’m really happy with – the fact that I meant my husband indirectly through Uni and that I got my partying out of the way while young. MY Dh went to university and never used his degree, he then went to technical school and is basically happy with where he is, but would also have been happier if instead of telling him the only path was school he’d been encouraged to follow his dream. Win or lose support to pursue those interests would have sent him farther in life. But again without University we’d never have met – but to me it seems a waste of $60,000 to really only have come out with a spouse – there are cheaper ways to find a good partner : )

    Personally I think kids are naturally drawn to math and science, but it’s school and parents who drive them away. After all what fun is there in memorizing a million and one numbers and formulas?

    Have you ever put double acting baking powder in water? Then heated it up? MY 3 yr old has – and it’s a great place to start talking about chemicals and reactions, catalysts. then experiment by mixing other things together, baking soda and vinegar – lemon juice. As for math many many games and passions require the use of math, some even require higher math – billiards (physics), poker (statistics), sure anyone can play and be decent, but to be great at it you need to know the rules behind it – and if the interest is there the kids learn it. DH works with a guy who makes close to $400k a year with the majority of that coming from 3 weekends of poker a year. Believe me he doesn’t do that on luck.

    I could go on and on with examples, but ultimately for us it comes down to trust. trusting ourselves to meet our kids needs and interests, and trust in our children to pursue those passions.

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