Yes, I Am An Unschooler

The other day a friend and fellow homeschooling mom asked me if I had mentioned that our family unschooled our children. “Yes, we do,” I told her.

“And, did you also say that you were homeschooled?” she asked.

“Yep, that’s true, too,” I smiled, aware of what her next question would be.

True to what I thought, she asked, “Were you unschooled?”

As a thirty-one year old mom of two young children, I often face a lot of bewildered looks when I state that I am an autodidactic unschooler who plans to raise her children to be the same.

Many in our local homeschooling group give me strange looks or simply change the subject when I mention that we unschool. One even laughed and said, “Oh, so you can help plan a lot of things because you never teach at all!” I don’t think she was joking. There is a lot of confusion out there amongst traditional homeschooling families as to what exactly happens in the home of…GASP…unschoolers.

Unschoolers! Aren’t those the folks that give us all a rotten name? The parents whose kids get kicked out of school for something and who then let their kids sit and watch soap operas and MTV all day while they eat processed cheese product on tortilla chips and three Hershey bars a day?

Many people see the word unschooling in this negative, passive light. But, for those of us who actually call ourselves unschoolers (I doubt the mom of the child described above would ever have heard of the word unschool,) the word is in fact positive and active.

To truly unschool you can’t sit back and relax; you have to get in and begin to know your children on a very fundamental level. What excites them? What energizes them? What makes them really tick? This means getting into their activities as well as including them in your own. For instance, I come from a long line of “game players.” Our house always had a ton of board games, card games, domino games, etc. which were often being played. I grew up to be a game player. My daughter is learning to be one as well. We often include her in our “grown-up” games of Aggravation or Sequence and at the age of five she is actually becoming quite good at both and we also will play Candy Land or Guess Who? with her. She is learning to love the activities that are important to our family identity and in the process learning a lot about math, strategy, and the importance of fun. At the same time, we constantly try to connect with what is important to her. She has a current fascination with bugs, so recent purchases in our home have included a book called Creepy Crawlers, a bug catching kit, even a “Bug Vacuum.” A neighbor of ours, who used to teach at the local public school, even brought by a book the other day called The Big Book of Bugs. We are loving it!

At other times the unschooling movement has been viewed by those within the larger homeschool community as being outside the traditionally conservative leaning, largely Christian based homeschool group as a whole. John Holt, who invented the word unschooling, was not a Christian and many devoted subscribers to his newsletter Growing Without Schooling felt very in tune with Mother Earth and natural rhythms – words that many traditional Christians tend to suspect.

Back in the days when my parents began to homeschool me they used a mix of “traditional” teaching methods and some “unschooling” methods and threw it all in together and called it homeschool. My mom read everything she could get her hands on about homeschooling, including some things about unschool, but she never, ever told anyone that she was an unschooler. Amongst our homeschooling friends the term was often frowned upon. It wasn’t until just a few months ago that my mom and another homeschooling friend of years ago got together and began discussing their methods and discovered that they both had used similar methods and that both had felt that they shouldn’t mention their “unschooling tendencies.”

I have a great freedom in that I only went to a public school for one year – Kindergarten. From first grade on, I was homeschooled. So, having grown up completely in a homeschooling, often unschooling, environment, I don’t have any of the “traditional school” baggage my parents had. I don’t have to worry if I’m not doing school the “right” way – the way that my teachers did, or wonder if my unschooled kids will learn enough. I have observed those around me who were unschooled or at least much less traditionally schooled than most become wonderful, smart, productive members of society. Add to that the fact that I lived an unschooling lifestyle in a very conservative Christian home and my freedom increases. I am not encumbered by the idea that the terms unschooling and Christian can never be said in the same sentence. My unschooling lifestyle is very integrally related to my Christian lifestyle. In fact, for all intents and purposes, they are one and the same. Deuteronomy 11:18-20 is a cornerstone of our philosophy – “Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.” In all aspects of life, at every point of every day, we are “schooling”, or “unschooling” if you prefer.

The basic, underlying principle of unschooling is not about whether you choose to traditionally school with desks and a blackboard and an entirely prepared curriculum in your schoolroom, or use a mix of textbooks at the dining table along with some fun prepared hands on activities or even elect to use an entirely hands on approach to teaching your kids by using recipes for math and dissecting locally caught frogs for science. All of those methods are, in their own way somewhat contradictory to what I see as fundamental unschooling. I can’t say it better than the “father” of unschooling himself, John Holt. He said at the end of his book How Children Learn, “Birds fly, fish swim, man thinks and learns. Therefore, we do not need to motivate children into learning by wheedling, bribing or bullying. We do not need to keep picking away at their minds to make sure they are learning. What we need to do, and all we need to do, is bring as much of the world as we can into the school and classroom (in our case, into their lives); give children as much help and guidance as they ask for; listen respectfully when they feel like talking; and then get out of the way. We can trust them to do the rest.”

For me, our unschooling lifestyle is about bringing the world to my kids in a big way and about always being there to guide. It’s a complete lifestyle, not just “another thing we do.” It’s more than homeschooling and also less than homeschooling. It is our way of life and I’m happy to tell you all about it!



Filed under Homeschool

9 responses to “Yes, I Am An Unschooler

  1. Tonya,
    Thank you for your very intelligent description of Christian Unschooling. You are such a wonderful mother with kind, loving, smart kids! You are an encourager and I appreciate you!
    ♥ Tina

  2. Thanks, Tina! I feel the same way about you! ♥

  3. I’m secretly fascinated with unschooling. This was fun to read.

  4. Susan – LOL – A friend admitted the same thing to me earlier today after reading this same post. She said she sometimes wakes up in panic mode after slipping into unschooling ways. 🙂

  5. I would have considered homeschooling if it weren’t illegal in Germany.

    I envy you in a sense because you get to spend so much more time with your kids. But on the other hand, I know how much work it is. It takes a lot of time and dedication. I am sure you are doing a great job and making sure it is fun learning. Fun learning is the best. It is real and meaningful to the children and they don’t even realize they are learning in the process.

  6. LOVE!

    I’d comment more but I’m too busy snarfing processed cheese food on tortilla chips.
    *wink, wink*

    I love the Deut. ref. What a great verse for unschooling!

  7. This is the first time some one has explained unschooling to me. it sounds wonderful. Can you tell me do you ever test them, or measure their learning, or is that what makes unschooling risky? No judgement, just wanting to learn, I don’t grasp any of the methods yet except for eclectic and unit studies. I think I will probably be eclectic when I start homeschooling but I have too much to learn as of yet! Great blog!

  8. Great question, Teresa! The answer is no. We don’t ever use any kind of outside tests with our children – yet. Our state has removed the testing requirement. There may come a time when we either move to a different state or the laws change and we may once again be required to test. I don’t see unschooling as risky in that we feel that we are preparing our children to follow their God-given bents. In other words, we are constantly with them and able to see what motivates and excites them the most and then use that knowledge to further their education as well as to help them foster their natural talents and abilities. I know I am always learning and I plan to be always learning for the rest of my life and I expect that my kids will be as well. All of the standardized tests that I have ever taken or seen set arbitrary measurements for multiple subjects. We feel that our kids will always be at varying levels from other kids and that that is not only okay, but is in fact normal.

    Your question has inspired me to write a new blog with some more info about how unschooling works in our house, so stay tuned!

  9. Pingback: “I can learn stuff on my own!” | Homeschool Redux

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