What is Unschooling?

Children in a playground. Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash. Unschooling, www.marianamcdougall.com

Unschooling: What is it, Why is It, and Does It Work?


Unschooling, in its most simplistic explanation, means letting children direct their own learning. Most unschoolers believe that children do not need to be taught; they are constantly learning on their own.

Coined by John Holt in the 1970s, the term “unschooling” signifies a general mistrust of a systemic or institutionalized school system, and favours child-directed, hands-on life experience. In most unschooler’s eyes, educators are not needed in childhood; rather, educational experiences are needed. 

Just as there are many styles of homeschooling, so there are many variations of unschoolers. Some unschoolers observe their children and provide activities that relate to the children’s interests. Others go about the business of life, letting their children learn by simply living in the world. And yet others, when the option is available, register their children for an unschooling “school,” the most well-known of which is Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts. About 50 schools worldwide are modeled after this philosophy of education, which makes resources easily available, but lets children direct their own learning using those resources. 

Unschooling Criticisms & Myths

Critics of unschooling often state that unschooled children suffer from lack of socialization and “real-world” skills, or that it will be difficult for them to attend post-secondary education. However, the evidence points to the opposite: children who have been unschooled are often out-of-the-box thinkers and lifelong learners that thrive in 21st century North America. 

Whether or not unschooled children make friends easily is entirely dependent on the child’s personality—just like with traditionally schooled kids. However, the idea that  unschooled children don’t have an opportunity to socialize is a myth. Homeschooling communities exist and are thriving, and unschooling families often attend events for homeschoolers. Furthermore, several universities now actively seek homeschoolers (of which unschoolers are part). 

Unschooling: does it really work? www.marianamcdougall.com Background Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash shows a girl watering plants.

There are many ways to attain an education. Whether homeschooled, unschooled, alternatively schooled, or traditionally schooled, learning is a lifelong process. Any educational philosophy, theory, or active practice seeks to encourage the child to develop a love for learning, and the skills to seek out reliable resources for learning throughout the stages of life. Unschooling is one of many ways to accomplish this goal.

Do we unschool?

I’ve mentioned this before: I don’t like labels. If I absolutely had to use a word to explain what kind of homeschoolers we are, that word would be eclectic. We use what works and let go of what doesn’t. In a household with 3 kids of wildly different personalities, one of whom learns very differently, flexibility and adaptation are the name of the game.

We use a curriculum for language arts and math, and we follow the kids’ interest for other subjects. We also use Duolingo for learning French and Portuguese. I do prepare some lessons for science, art, social studies, etc., but mostly, we learn from reading a tonne, and from attending real life events and programs. This way of doing things works for our family, and we adapt as we go. This adaptability and willingness to learn from the world around us served us well during our year on the road.

Homeschooling and/or unschooling is definitely not for everyone. I believe each family should be free to choose the best education for their children, and I’m blessed to live in a province that honours my parental right and responsibility to offer my children the education that is best for them.

Please note: this article about unschooling was first published on a now defunct website called Komorebi Post. This version adds some information about my own homeschooling experience.

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