Kids playing with a parachute

What is Unschooling?

Introduction

I could write a whole book on unschooling, and many people have, (maybe I will too one day) so this post will really be just an introduction to help you understand what it means and how it might look in practice.

I believe that home education, and be extension, unschooling is about more than just education. It is a whole reframing of childhood, education, learning and family life. At it’s core, unschooling seeks to allow children to direct their own learning with parents and carers as facilitators rather than teachers.

Just for a moment, I’d like you to think about babies and young children and what we do as parents to support their learning. Think about them learning to walk, talk, eat, use the toilet, understand their world, build relationships and a million other things. Children learn more before the age of 5 than at any other time in their life. And they do this, not by being taught, but by exploring, following their own innate curiosity, experimenting, and play. Of course as parents and carers we help this by facilitating experiences, choosing toys, reading books, going out into the world, talking to them. But are we teaching? Following a curriculum? I’m not so sure.

Now let’s consider a 4 year old. They start school and everything changes. They are now in a system where adults know best, they are no longer able to follow their own interests and passions, they are subject to assessment, where adults decide whether they are typical or advanced or behind. They are now in a system where what they learn and how they learn in has been decided by politicians.

Note: I am not anti-school and this is categorically not a criticism of teachers. This is a criticism of a system where children are treated as a commodity and are subject to the whims of government ministers. A system which has become increasingly narrow where any difference is not tolerated. A system which values maths and English skills above all else, side-lining all of those children who may excel in other areas.

As home educators we have the absolute privilege of considering a different way. And for us, unschooling feels right. Our priorities in home education are curiosity, autonomy and  freedom to choose. And this is what unschooling allows us to do.

A typical day

We don’t follow a curriculum or have much in the way of a set plan for what we are going to learn. We tend to let our days develop depending on the interests of the children. We do have regular activities and groups that we attend several times a week, and often meet up with friends, but we also keep space for flexibility and choice. We might choose to have rest days, or whole days devoted to baking, or long Minecraft sessions, or a lot of tv. We might also decide to do a project in the garden, or build a den in the woods, or go looking for mermaids purses at the beach. The important thing is we get to choose, as a family.  

Our days might look something like this:

  • Waking up naturally, without the constraints of an alarm clock. Choosing clothes based on comfort. Eating breakfast when we are hungry.
  • Pursuing individual interests and hobbies, whether it’s reading, painting, coding, gardening, or building.
  • Engaging in real-world experiences such as visiting museums, parks, libraries, or participating in community activities.
  • Having big conversations.
  • Exploring nature and the outdoors, observing wildlife, or going hikes.
  • Collaborating on projects or experiments that spark curiosity and creativity.
  • Play, play and more play!

Play

There is a much longer post that I want to write about the importance of play but let me just say for now play is at the absolute heart of everything we do. Play with friends, play with the family, playing with children of all ages. Home ed and unschooling allows us to dedicate hours and hours to play and it’s one of my favourite things. It breaks my heart when I hear about how little time children get to play and the implications of this on mental and physical health.

But what about GCSEs?

Unschooling is often met with scepticism and negative assumptions including concerns that a lack of structure leads to gaps in skills and knowledge. That children won’t be able to pursue careers that require an academic pathway. This was a huge fear I had when we started this journey, was I ruining my children’s lives? But there is little evidence for this, and I believe that this way of educating children not only fosters an innate desire to learn, it also provides opportunities for real world experiences, encouraging skills such as a critical thinking, adaptability and self-motivation.  My children are learning all the time, both the traditional academic subjects and the other areas that we also value. And I have no doubt that whatever they choose to do in the future they will have the skills to learn what they need to learn when they need to learn it.

How to start unschooling?

Whether your children have been home educated for a while or they have been in school, I would recommend a period of deschooling. For both children and their families, there needs to be a period of adjustment where you are able to reflect on the beliefs that we hold around schooling and education, and time to find out what sparks interest. This can be a real challenge especially when school trauma may be involved. (I will be expanding on this in a future post). Finding your community whether online or in person can be a crucial part of this. I have a friend who is brilliant for asking this one question whenever I have a wobble – “why do you think you need to worry about that?”

Take time to read books, follow interests, (as a parent I would use the time to find your own), be outside as much as you can and observe the changes in your children. It takes time to decompress from the rigidity of the school system. And it’s not easy to develop the mindset needed for unschooling, but small shifts towards freedom, autonomy and trust for the process can be life changing.

Conclusion

Unschooling is an approach to home education that celebrates the joy of learning and centres around the innate curiosity of children. Unschooling families are able to create nurturing environments where children can truly explore themselves, their interests and their passions in a way that works for them.

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