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Dipping Your Toe in the Unschooling Pond

Submitted by on October 31, 2011 – 1:00 pm12 Comments

Unschooling vs. Homeschooling

by Kerrie McLoughlin

When you have been homeschooling for a few years (or a few days!), you will come to a point when you or your child will want to throw a textbook, workbook or lesson planner across the room. I recently reached that point, threatened to put all my kids in school, then came across some new friends through a Facebook group who do something called unschooling.

I’d heard of unschooling before, and thought parents who did it were kidding themselves. I mean, you can’t let a child say when he is “ready” to learn the Pythagorean Theorem, read the classics or learn proper grammar. So, armed with my firm belief that unschoolers were all lazy hippies who had kids that couldn’t read or write and who acted like something Jane Goodall would observe, I went for an unschooling playdate.

Boy, was I shocked when I realized unschooling does not mean undisciplined kids running wild like little banshees. One mom was playing a game of Pokemon with some boys while she chatted with other moms. Children were welcomed into conversations and could hold their own with adults and kids they had just met. And yep, they were smart, too, complete with their own opinions about learning and life. They could read and write and spell and each had learned on his own schedule.

Trying to talk myself into unschooling, I thought of the many cases where kids and adults who taught themselves how to do things were actually better at them (playing piano, journalism, art, computer programming, etc.).  And what’s the worst thing that could happen if my kid doesn’t know her state capitals? Can’t she look up any informational gaps (much of it memorization exercises we forget anyway) in her education in a book or online? Discarding some of these things from our “have-to-know” lists leaves room for a whole lot of interests that the child will soak up like a sponge. It’s true that when I stopped pushing my 5-year-old sons to read, they caught on readily at age 6. Hmmm.

Impressed by the playdate experience, this control freak set out to let her kids dictate the homeschooling situation. Turns out, it’s a lot more work than using a pre-packaged curriculum, but the benefits outweigh the energy output. My kids were suspicious when I put away the lesson planner, but soon it was nice to:

  • not have to drag and chase the kids to the table to “do school” (workbooks, worksheets, boring history lessons they never absorbed, math drills, etc.)
  • not use a case of tissue while crying in frustration over a lesson
  • not freaking out that my lesson plans were weeks behind because somebody got sick, the cat died or the washing machine blew up
  • not hear my son say either, “I’m bored” or “Why do I have to even know this?”
  • watch the kids play nicely together because we weren’t all stressed out
  • watch them read to each other, ask me to play with them, cook together, do chores together, ask me to teach them things and so much more

Nanda Van Gestel says in “The Unschooling Unmanual” that, “Unschooling is like a home-cooked meal, prepared with love, that includes our child’s favorite foods, while school is more like a prepackaged meal which may or may not match our child’s preferences.” You could say that about a prepackaged curriculum or online virtual school, as well. While this may be true, Nanda, this unschooling thing now has me running my tushie off because my kids are ASKING me for learning activities!

Soon I am wiped out from reading about Lego and Pokemon and Princess unit studies and nature lapbooks (because the kids asked me to); putting books, DVDs educational games on hold at the library; buying materials for fun projects, researching field trips and other classes to match the kids’ interests; playing cards and games; playing World of Zoo on the computer with the kids and so much more. Then my poor, worn-out brain had to understand the concept of using real-world examples instead of pre-printed worksheets. A lemonade stand or a bake sale are perfect lessons in math and business. A kid keeping a journal that won’t be graded is free to learn so much about the English language and art and his own voice. And how many kids get to volunteer at a food bank during a school day?

Online, I often see homeschooling parents looking for a lifeline, a reason to continue homeschooling in general. They are frustrated for so many reasons I completely understand. I want these parents to know that unschooling does take some courage (trusting your kids to learn!), but that it’s very worth it. I don’t know about you, but I’m not homeschooling to get all my kids to Yale. I want them to be people with good values who love to learn and seek out knowledge. If our kids graduate “smart” but hate learning, what was it all for?

Sidebar: An Unschooler’s Toolkit

John Holt books

Sandra Dodd’s website

A library card

B vitamins for energy to keep up with your kids’ interests!

Kerrie McLoughlin has been schooling her 5 kids one way or another for the last 5 years. Check them out at


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