Originally published at Mothering.com
I vividly remember the moment I decided to unschool.
I had a toddler, and I’d decided to go back to school, so I used the Early Education center on my college campus.
My child was sixteen-months-old when he started attending, and I adored the “baby” class. The teachers were so sweet, and everything was safe, open and transparent. Because he was on my campus, I was able to stop by to nurse my child anytime I wanted. I appreciated the early education center overall for the gentle and respectful care they provided my son when he was young.
Then he aged into the next class, which implemented significantly more structure and routine to his day. My son has always been an energetic kid. If something captures his attention, he can focus steadily for as long as he needs. If not, he, like most other kids, would rather run and play.
It became a problem. When he was two years old, he was required in his new class to sit quietly during story time and music time, as well as at every meal and snack he ate at the center.
When he was unable to do so — because it is not a reasonable request for a child at that level of brain development — I was pulled aside at pick-up time and told that my son was unable to sit still. He wasn’t disruptive, but he wouldn’t sit still, and they needed him to.
I was a single parent at the time, in school full-time while working as a nanny in my spare hours. Still, I tried to make the time to practice sitting still with my two-year-old. He had no trouble sitting in my lap while I read books or sang songs with him.
But, of course, we weren’t in a room full of new friends to play with and new toys to explore. He had no desire to sit still in his new classroom, unless he was absorbed in concentrated play. He was just a toddler and he had too much to do. He’s always been a naturally busy explorer and scientist. I have always been proud of him for it.
I’d thought about homeschooling because it crossed my path as a natural mama, and because of my own negative experience with public school. It didn’t seem feasible at first because I was a single parent, but at the same time, I’d also successfully arranged my school schedule and online classes so I was rarely away from my child, and only a couple of hours at that.
He was still too young to make a structured plan at that time, but I knew I was drawn to homeschooling.
Then, one day when I went to pick him up, the director of the early education center pulled me aside. Again, she wanted to talk about my two-year-old’s inability to sit still during story time, music time, and meal time. He would often take a few bites of food then try to run off to play. He’d listen to the story at story time for a bit, then attempt to return to his favorite truck toy.
He also preferred to stare out the window into the parking lot, where a massive construction project had been taking place for weeks, and he was enthralled with watching the trucks in action. He was jolly and good-natured, never hit or kicked, never was much for tantrumming. He just didn’t want to sit still when there was so much fun stuff to do.
Previously, I’d shown concern and told the teachers I’d do my best to practice sitting still with my child. That day was different. I was already trying so hard to be a good parent; the last thing I needed was to worry about whether or not my toddler was performing unrealistic tasks that his brain simply was not developed enough to complete. I was frustrated.
“Why exactly does he need to sit still?” I asked. “Isn’t he a little young for that?”
“He’ll need to learn to sit still for school,” the director responded.
In that moment, I learned that his ability to sit still at that age wasn’t essential; he wasn’t being disruptive. All the same, they believed he needed to practice this skill because several years down the road, he’d need it for school.
In that moment, I knew I would homeschool. And I said so. “I think I’m going to homeschool.” The director looked surprised, but dropped the matter. Shortly after that, I pulled my son out of the childcare center and arranged to trade childcare with another single mama friend who was also in school.
At that time, I wasn’t aware of the different options within homeschooling. Curriculum or no curriculum, Waldorf style or religious-leaning, traditional homeschooling or unschooling. I just knew it was an enormous relief to not have to worry about whether or not my two-year-old was properly sitting still every day.
As my child got older, I started to think more about his education. I’d read about Finland’s school system, how they don’t start until later, how they are in school fewer hours and they don’t have homework. I didn’t feel pressed to “start homeschooling,” because he was already learning. I wasn’t waiting for the magic age at which to begin instructing him. He’d been learning since birth.
It was a chorus-of-angels type of moment, because as a single parent I couldn’t imagine trying to carve out a six-hour school day during which I supervised my child as a teacher would, instructing him daily in different subjects, demanding his attention if ever his mind wandered, sticking to the curriculum in front of me.
I reflected on my own experiences in school, and aside from a strong recollection of the aggressive social outcasting of anyone even remotely different which takes place in such institutions, it also occurred to me that I really didn’t remember much from the subjects I was never good at.
It was sad to remember my male friends who failed to present as hypermasculine, being harassed and tormented for who they were. The same stuff happened to the girls who didn’t uphold typical beauty standards.
I remembered the ruthless emotional torture one teacher faced; a woman who had been in a car accident that left her disabled. She taught Home Ec. My peers mocked her regularly as she taught, with such callous disregard for their fellow human that it shocked me then and it shocks me now.
The homophobic, racist, and misogynistic language I heard daily still sticks with me and undoubtedly the others who it was geared towards.
It was stunning to realize that those incidents formed the bulk of my memories from school, interspersed with interactions with my friends, and a bit from my favorite classes. It was clear that the subjects I had no interest in had vanished.
I remember being in school and taking a passionate interest in several different subjects, primarily English, art, music, and psychology. The other subjects I can safely say I remember nothing of.
I don’t remember being in class, although I know I was. I don’t remember learning anything. I do not recall anything that was taught. Currently when I try to remember what the deal is with protons, neutrons, and electrons, I have to look it up. When I look it up, I absorb it, because it’s an intentional act.
My very favorite subject, which I always excelled at was language arts; anything to do with reading literature and writing about it. Turns out, my profession is writing.
During the other classes, the classes I remember nothing from, I would sit and draw or read and write. I wrote a lot of poems in my geometry class. This disappointed my teacher, a great man, a phenomenal teacher who merely wanted me to love math as much as he did. But I didn’t. I couldn’t.
The discovery of unschooling left me feeling like all of this was okay. I knew enough math to get by and teach the basics, and I found enough resources to help me feel empowered to pursue the subject further as needed. And it probably will be needed, because it turns out that my first child, my original unschooler, loves math.
Author and unschooling advocate defines ‘unschooling’ as: “Allowing children as much freedom to learn in the world, as their parents can comfortably bear.”
I most often tell people that unschooling is life-learning; instead of using a curriculum, we use the world.
At present, I have an almost-9-year-old, an almost-3-year-old, and a loving husband. The 3-year-old learns as all toddlers do, through testing limits and feeling feelings, repeating experiments and making messes, singing, dancing, and reading with our family — and most importantly, playing.
My 9-year-old, I’m happy to say, is thus far glorious proof that unschooling works. He has passionately taken control of his education, pursuing any interesting topic that crosses his path, creating projects on his own, and excelling. His latest obsession is Greek Mythology, which he has been researching with fervor, drawing mythical gods and creatures, complete with facts and details about each.
When we think of a 1950s sitcom during which dad says, “Come ’ere, son,” and sits down to teach an admirable, important life lesson, that is an example of unschooling. So many of the great things we have learned thus far, we’ve learned through conversation. Some silly, some sad, some beautiful and profound.
Heart-to-hearts are at the foundation of our unschooling education.
Child-led learning means that the student pursues their interests while the parent helps to facilitate the learning. Playing freely is a large part of it, because it’s often how kids learn best. But interactions with family members, friends, and the general public provide important teaching moments which parents can guide to expound on a particular subject.
So how do we learn the basics? It’s easier than you might think.
My 9-year-old is a perfect example. His interests have expanded in the past year, but before that his number one passion of all time was dinosaurs.
This obsession with dinosaurs went far beyond the Tyrannosaurus Rex. My son’s mind is like a sponge which could soak up any and all facts about dinosaurs, which he would happily rattle off to anyone who listened. His days were spent drawing pictures of dinosaurs, talking about dinosaurs, watching documentaries about dinosaurs, looking for library books about dinosaurs, and happily sitting while I read them over and over again.
When he was younger and would tell me that a fully grown Utahraptor is 16 feet, and a baby Utahraptor is three feet — we’d figure out the difference between the two. Now he does it naturally, any time there’s an opportunity to do some math.
When he told me that the Argentinosaurus was discovered in Argentina, we got out a map and found it, then talked about its history and present day cultures.
Even before that, we had many discussions about which dino names start with which letters, and what the sum would be if we added one more dinosaur to a group of three dinosaurs.
There are many fun and interesting ways to teach the basics, without ever sitting down with curriculum. By allowing our children to pursue their interests, we fan the flames of a love of learning, instead of bogging them down with rules and regulations.
One day when we were taking a walk, we spotted some trash littered in the parking lot of a grocery store. Nearby were some recycling bins, marked to separate glass, plastic, and cardboard. We decided to pick up the trash. My son, probably four years old at the time, wanted to put it in the correct receptacle.
We counted how many items we had. We talked about the process of recycling and why the items needed to be separated. I asked him what material each was made of, and what letter the word started with. Then he matched the item with the word on each bin, and sorted the trash into its proper place. The next time we went to the library, we got some books on recycling.
Through this 15-minute experience on an afternoon stroll, we learned about recycling, furthered reading skills, and did some simple math.
Today we talked at the grocery store about the price of pork, and if it’s $2 a pound, and the total price is $28, how many pounds do we have?
This is what life-learning looks like. Thus far my son is happy to answer any question I have for him, and prides himself with doing math randomly throughout the day whenever the opportunity presents itself. He sees it as a fun challenge, and I am grateful for that.
I never wanted to push my son to read because I didn’t want him to feel the stress and pressure which so often turns kids away from learning. But I’m a reader and have been since childhood, and it has been such an important part of my life. We often sounded out words, and he loved when I read to him, but didn’t show a lot of interest in figuring it out on his own, until one fateful trip to the library.
Instead of playing and picking out books that day, we sat down to talk. I explained that the library is full of virtually infinite books. Books about dinosaurs, dragons, myths and monsters, science, math, outer space, anything he wanted to learn about.
I said I loved reading to him and was happy to do it, but I don’t have the option of reading to him all day long because domestic work is necessary work. He, however, could read all day long, any book he wanted, as soon as he learned how to do it himself. No rush, no pressure, but I’d also get him his own book light.
That summer, his grandma was in town. My mom is a speech pathologist and knows all sorts of tricks to teach literacy, so the time they spent together that summer furthered his understanding to the next step. He was six. Soon, he was sounding out words everywhere we went.
Billboards, street signs, and books came alive to him. Suddenly it clicked and he understood that stories and messages were everywhere. He wanted to sound out everything, and through that practice he caught onto reading books quickly. He got his book light, and since then has developed a voracious appetite for reading.
Every morning he wakes up naturally then lays in bed reading; every night he goes to bed when he’s tired and stays up reading for a while. It has been a beautiful process to witness.
And because homeschooling doesn’t actually mean staying home all day, despite popular opinion, socialization is not a challenge. Instead of being in a classroom limited to his peers, we spend the day out and about, meeting a wide variety of people, as well as attending homeschool play groups in our area. We’re also sure to visit the parks and playgrounds during after school hours so there will be kids around to play with.
The myth that homeschooled kids are socially awkward is long outdated. Not only are homeschooled kids able to socialize, but compared to public, private, and Catholic schools, homeschooled kids often do better academically as well.
We did end up buying a curriculum set eventually because my son decided he wanted to be a paleontologist. Of course this plan could change, but for the time being, we researched what it takes to become one. It’s a lot of college, so we talked about how to get into college, especially as an unschooler (which isn’t a problem, according to the research which has been done on unschoolers so far).
I told my son it’s a lot of test-taking and memorization, and we talked about what that would consist of. I said getting a curriculum book would be good practice. He agreed, so I picked one up. He’s apparently in 4th grade now. He started the book at the beginning of the school year, and with only a few pages left to go before the book is done, he’ll be finished before the school year ends.
He does two pages a day. Two pages of curriculum every morning and he’s right on par with his schooled peers. The rest of the day is devoted to reading, playing, special projects, Legos, play dates, and time in nature.
Time in nature was one of my most significant reasons for choosing to homeschool, unschool in particular. Both of my kids are lovely and loud and wild. Romping through the woods as a family is one of our favorite activities. We go outside daily, in every season, bundling up as needed to face the elements.
Children are meant to run free. Twenty minutes of recess a day isn’t enough. Children learn from play, and they need to move to learn. This is something we know; it simply hasn’t been implemented in our school system fully, because it would take a total overhaul and our taxes are being spent on war instead.
There are layers of privilege involved in the choice to unschool, and I acknowledge that. We sacrifice in order to make it happen. It’s not an option for everyone. For my family, unschooling is more than just an education choice — it’s a philosophy and a lifestyle.
My husband and I aim to nurture autonomy in our children. We believe that topics like civil rights and social justice are as important for kids to learn about as typical elementary school subjects. Soft skills — compassion, cooperation, kindness, empathy, and responsibility rank up there in importance as well.
Child-led learning fosters a love for learning that is unlike any other. I remember when I was in school and so totally bored with science, failing for sure. I decided I wasn’t good at science. It wasn’t for me. I wasn’t smart enough for it, didn’t understand it, never would.
Years later, left to my own devices, poring over the scientific research on breastfeeding, child development, attachment theory, birth, and other evidence-based natural parenting topics is now a significant part of my daily life.
What we love sticks with us as we learn throughout life. My desire is for all children to be able to follow their passions and become excellent at what they love.