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The case for unschooling

Why the hands-off alternative to homeschooling might get parents through the Covid-19 pandemic.

Unschooling allows kids to follow their own interests and define their own curriculum.
FG Trade/Getty Images

It’s 10 am and my three school-age children are spread out around the house. One is on his laptop, headphones on, eyes focused intently on his screen. One has transformed our dining room table into his own makeshift STEM studio complete with Legos, popsicle sticks, food coloring, and other seemingly unrelated things. And the last one is on his tablet listening to an audiobook while he follows along with his physical copy. It might technically be summer, but this is what life often looks like for us year-round. No, we don’t homeschool — in our household, several of our kids are unschooled.

Since March, I’ve watched as my friends scrambled to put together some sort of survival plan to make it through the school year as closures caused by the Covid-19 pandemic spread across the nation. “How are we going to do this?” was the question on everyone’s mind. It’s been a tough few months, and just as we’ve taken a moment to catch our breath, schools are now announcing closures in the fall, and there’s a new question on the horizon: “What are we going to do about next year?” If you find yourself worrying over these questions, unschooling might be the answer you’re looking for.

Unschooling is a broad term that encompasses a range of labels, definitions, and practices unique to each person or family. At its core, it’s the opportunity — and often for new unschoolers, the challenge — for children to explore their own interests rather than adhere to the criteria and curricula predetermined by school boards or other entities. Unlike the traditional homeschool model which often seeks to mimic the classroom or follow a defined curriculum usually with parents acting as teachers, in unschooling, children take the lead. Adults, sometimes (but not always) parents, typically offer support, assistance, and guidance when needed.

For the past three years, our family has been on a journey to reimagine the way we do “school,” a decision ignited by our independent and headstrong son, who was in third grade at the time. Each day, he came home requesting to be homeschooled: He told us that at school he felt bored, and his project-based honors program was discontinued due to the lack of staff — one of many challenges at his under-resourced public school. It was becoming increasingly clear that his desire for independence and space to explore the things he was interested in wasn’t possible in the traditional public school classroom. At the time, we had a younger child who wasn’t yet in school and an older sibling who wanted to stay in his public school. Ultimately, we agreed to pull him out of his public school, and so began our journey.

In the beginning, I was much like parents a few months ago, trying to recreate school at home. I was also working from home as a freelance writer, and as the worksheets, packets, and strict lesson plans increased, so did my anxiety and frustration. As I attempted to take on the role of teacher, I found myself approaching burnout as I struggled to balance lesson plans with side-by-side instruction and meeting my own deadlines. My son seemed to be struggling with sitting in front of a computer screen for hours and filling out endless worksheets even more than I was. It wasn’t until I noticed more ease and enthusiasm happening in our scheduled “free time” — like his decision to write a short story one day — that I understood the way we were homeschooling wasn’t working for either of us.

Then I remembered something I discovered back when I first began researching our homeschooling options, a concept as simple as it was radical: People can learn without “school.”

Allowing kids to shape their own education

It can be helpful to think of unschooling not as an educational approach but as the philosophy that learning is a natural process constantly taking place. The term emerged in the ’70s, popularized by author and educator John Holt. After working as a teacher in a conventional setting for several years, Holt realized the motivating factor for many of his students wasn’t a love of learning but a fear of failure and criticism. He noted a marked difference between the natural creativity in preschool-age children and the lack of excitement and curiosity in elementary school students and beyond. Over his lifetime, his writings on unschooling inspired many to reexamine the state of America’s public schools and our rigid expectations of children.

Today, unschooling is practiced by people across the world for all sorts of reasons, even within their own families. For us, it’s an opportunity to release expectations and observe what learning looks like naturally for our youngest son, age 7. For our middle child, age 11, the driver is independence: the ability to choose which projects to pursue, books to read, and even languages to study. And for our eldest, 15, who was attending traditional school before the pandemic, our decision to unschool this coming fall will allow him space to dive deep into the subjects he’s most passionate about.

Our days typically look like a mix of scheduled activities, some guidance or instructional assistance if needed, and a dedicated amount of time for exploration or personal projects. We have some expectations, such as using technology to support a project or interest rather than endless scrolling, or setting goals that we regularly check-in on, agreed upon together as a family. Not all unschoolers do this, but this is what works for us. A tool we picked up from our unschool community is the use of contracts to outline those expectations and requests. We use them for everything from resolving conflicts to requests to use certain tools and resources (this can help with ensuring healthy use of the internet).

There’s daily reading, their pick — for one that’s an audiobook, another a comic. They may have a virtual class in the morning, something they may request on their own or something we noticed they were naturally drawn to. They each have projects or interests they’re actively pursuing, so in the afternoon they could be doing that on their own or with our assistance. For example, our eldest is currently on scene four of his animated film, so you’d find him working on that, while our youngest is eager to read “bigger books” like his brothers, so more structured reading assistance could be happening then. Before the pandemic, for two days a week they would attend Natural Creativity, a self-directed learning center featured in the documentary Unschooled, where facilitators would help support, guide, and assist them in their endeavors (program costs are fairly reasonable, and there are financial aid options). An added bonus: This gave me two dedicated days to work without interruption.

Unschooling as a working parent can afford more freedom

Will my kid actually learn anything if we let them do what they want? Will they fall behind their peers? And what happens in the subsequent years when they might want to return to school? These are all questions I’ve had myself and sometimes still think about. Here’s what I know for sure: In practice, learning is happening all the time, even if it isn’t packaged up and presented just right. For example, my son mastered fractions simply by following his natural interest in cooking, where he learned early on how to double or halve ingredients when making his favorite brownies. If you look for the learning, you’ll find it.

For working parents, any kind of homeschooling isn’t easy, but unschooling gives a different sort of freedom. Think about it this way: With a defined curriculum, your role is teacher. With self-directed learning, that shifts to a more supportive role, or as we’ve liked to view it, a sort of partnership. Children take the lead, explore subjects that interest them, play, and read; you support with assistance, help connect ideas, or introduce new material that builds on those topics.

On the days where more support, structure, or scheduled interactions are needed, especially for younger children who may need more assistance, there are platforms like Outschool, which offers countless live online classes with teachers and other students. A current favorite is Storybook STEM class, an hour each day that occupies a busy first-grader with a story and a project in science, technology, engineering, or math. Self-directed centers like Natural Creativity continue to offer virtual community and weekly afternoon activities. There are also co-ops where parents rotate during the week to lead a lesson or activity for a group of children — virtually or socially distanced, of course.

I’ll admit, the concept of unschooling can be a lot to digest, especially in comparison to what we’ve come to expect from traditional school. But remember, school is designed for efficiency, to educate large groups of students. Homeschool is a different strategy altogether.

If you’re considering homeschooling in general, it’s important to read your state’s laws so you’re clear on what’s expected of you. And while reporting requirements may vary from district to district, unschooling is a perfectly acceptable homeschool method in all 50 states. Even in the most strict states (mine is one of them), there aren’t benchmarks students are required to reach. You can unschool and make the transition back to traditional school if your child’s needs and preferences change.

Meanwhile, for older unschoolers interested in college, it’s a great practice to get in touch with the admissions office of their desired schools to find out what their requirements for homeschooled students are. You might be surprised to learn that in lieu of traditional transcripts and test scores, colleges welcome the creative learning experiences from unschoolers and homeschoolers of all backgrounds.

Just like traditional school, college is one of many paths for unschoolers. In fact, in the absence of the high stress and rigid structure of high school, many unschoolers are quite successful in college. Not only have they had ample practice in taking the lead in their education, they’re also used to the freedoms in college that students in traditional schools aren’t necessarily familiar with. While unschoolers frequently do go on to college and grad school, they also pursue vocational schools and other special skills. It’s common for high school-aged unschoolers to explore internships that align with their interests, start businesses, or pursue large-scale creative projects that assist them as they navigate life beyond school. For example, there’s 19-year-old Karen Leong who owns a successful custom cake design business after discovering videos on YouTube when she was 11.

Unschoolers often find careers they enjoy and that support them. I’m not saying unschooling is right for every child, and I understand the hesitation that comes with such unstructured learning for your kids. As for heading back to school next year, I would simply encourage all parents to remember that even though it might be different from what we are used to, learning is still happening all around us. Uncertainty is the theme for everyone right now. But as we’re gathering research, looking over the data, and waiting to hear some sort of plan, perhaps you could consider a different approach to manage it. Take the year into your own hands, let your children take the lead, and watch what happens when you learn without school.

Tyshia Ingram is a freelance writer and brand strategist with a passion for storytelling. By day she uses her words to bring brand visions to life and by night she pens essays on parenting, purpose, and other matters of the heart. Find her managing a blended family of schoolers, unschoolers, and young people whose paths are yet to be discovered in Philadelphia.