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What is Unschooling?

Homeschool. A term often associated with the stigma of “depriving kids of social interaction” and swiftly dismissed as “not an option” is now suddenly the standard of education across the board. Whether we want to or not, those of us with little ones about to enter kindergarten or preschool, are now faced with the possibility of partial homeschooling during some seriously formative years due to the pandemic and social distancing. In a longitudinal study published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine, they find that, “In the short term, preschool participation has been shown to improve children's cognitive skills as well as health outcomes. And the National Education Association’s research shows that “5-year-olds are more than ready for a longer school day, and do better in a setting that allows them time to learn and explore activities in depth.”

Awesome. So basically my kids are going to be missing out on some serious advantages? Got it. And this means I have to provide my kindergartner with a full school day’s worth of learning, while simultaneously wiping my 3-year-old’s butt, and working from home? Not to mention making sure everyone is fed, and brushes their teeth? That sounds nightmare-ish.

There has to be an alternative approach that brings some type of balance to this scenario. I don’t want to complain about the current state of public education. I want my family to adapt and thrive no matter what the future holds.

That’s how I became interested in the practice of “unschooling”. In a nutshell, unschoolers are free to follow their interests in an unstructured and play-based path. Abstract enough for you, lol?

Here are some quotes from an essential unschooling text, Free to Learn, by Boston College research professor and developmental psychologist Peter Gray. Besides blowing my mind, they help me wrap my head around the concept of unschooling:

“A prison, according to the common, general definition, is any place of involuntary confinement and restriction of liberty. In school, as in adult prisons, the inmates are told exactly what they must do and are punished for failure to comply. Actually, students in school must spend more time doing exactly what they are told than is true of adults in penal institutions. Another difference, of course, is that we put adults in prison because they have committed a crime, while we put children in school because of their age.”

“Perhaps kids today play on the computer as much as they do partly because that is one place where they can play freely, without adult intervention and direction.”

“Self-education through play and exploration requires enormous amounts of unscheduled time—time to do whatever one wants to do, without pressure, judgment, or intrusion from authority figures. That time is needed to make friends, play with ideas and materials, experience and overcome boredom, learn from one’s own mistakes, and develop passions.”

One of my best friends, Jessica, unschools her two daughters (ages 7 and 3), and is an open book when it comes to sharing her experiences. She has her degree in education, classroom experience in multiple grade levels, and is a certified Tinkergarten leader. Childhood education is basically her jam.

Just to give you an idea of why I started getting interested in unschooling, Jessica’s 3-year-old makes her own breakfast in the morning. Her 7-year-old makes veggie omelettes all by herself, and has incredible amounts of empathy… so much so, she even started her own charity for the homeless. And that is just the tip of the iceberg of their coolness.

I really want to try unschooling, but the word “unstructured” makes me panic. I am a list-making, agenda-planning freak of nature. I need an outline on how to be unstructured, lol. Luckily, my sweet Jessica obliged, and offered such a clear look into why she chose unschooling, and what an average day looks like for her, from sunrise to sundown:

“This is unschooling with my family. I say “with my family” to make sure you understand that not every unschoolers day looks like mine. In fact, most don't. It would be difficult to find unschooling schedules that look remotely alike! This is part of the beauty of unschooling. You don't work your day around school, or “educating” your child. You use your day to do those things. Our daily lives look vastly different, but are still full of opportunities to teach our kiddos. This may seem like an odd view of educating youth, but I ask you to put aside your current ideas of school. We know there is a curriculum, a strict schedule, and very specific subjects our kids are required to learn each school year. Someone deemed these subjects and schedules as appropriate for kids at each grade level. But what if they're not? What if learning to read by kindergarten was not supportive of their natural development? What if learning to write so early displaced other important skills that they could be focusing on?

These are the questions that I needed answers to, because in my heart, I didn't feel that school was supportive of the natural cognitive, emotional, and physical development of my children. Once we decided that public school was not what we wanted, we had to find what we did want. This was a process full of failure, tough days, and a lot of explaining to those we thought we needed to answer too. When I started to find more and more information that made sense to me, I knew I was on the right path for what my family needed... time in nature to explore and wonder, time to play, and time to express our individual interests and personalities. It's a beautiful, crazy place, with wild adventures and tons of learning... Learning about the world, and learning about ourselves, all through the freedom of unschooling. It’s freedom to always be full of wonder, and freedom to love learning.

Are you ready for a huge secret? We don't average anywhere near 8 hours of school… even in a week! Crazy right? When you think about school in terms of sit-down, focused, me lecturing or passing out worksheets to do, we aren't anywhere close to 8 hours of that business. Here's our general breakdown:

  • We wake up in the early morning, before the birds, lol.

  • Then it’s hygiene related jobs, brushing of things, washing of things...

  • 7ish Breakfast: My kids choose, and often make, their own breakfast of fruit, cereal, eggs, toast, and/or yogurt.

  • They each pick a show to watch while I drink hot coffee, clean something to make me feel settled and in control for a bit.

  • 8:30 am is the true start to our day, usually playing a game or two.

  • 9:30/10 am: Outside for a hike or backyard play, even in rain or snow. It makes us all feel better.

  • Noon-ish: Lunch, usually a snack tray with fruits, nuts, veggies, and cheese unless they request something else.

  • 1:00 pm: “School”. We often have projects in the works, so this is just a time to focus on one of those.

  • 2:00 pm: More games or a craft, or outside time again.

  • 4:00 pm: Screen time. This could be video chatting someone, tablet time, or shows/movies.

  • 5:00 pm: Dinner, because of the whole “up before the birds” thing.

  • 6:00 pm: All the same games we played throughout the day, but this time with Dad.

  • 6:30ish pm: Bedtime jobs... all the washing and brushing again, plan our schedule for the next day, and discuss goals we met for the day.

  • 7ish pm: Little one goes to bed while the big gets some extra books/convo time with Mom and Dad.

  • 8ish pm: Big one goes to bed, and Mom and Dad eat all the junk food in front of the TV like the true adults we are.

To many, this schedule probably seems to be lacking a great deal in the education department. I'm ok with that. While families try to find the best type of education for their children in this uncertain time, I hope some find relief in knowing that unstructured time for kids can be a great thing. We don't need to have every hour of the “school” day planned out with Pinterest-worthy educational activities. Life, in all it's crazy beauty, offers some of the best teaching moments we can offer our kids.

Daily interactions offer unlimited opportunities for me to work with my kids on how to effectively talk to one another, solve problems that arise in play and sharing a living space, and work on compromising and being flexible. These are all incredibly important life skills no matter the career they may choose. I feel confident in putting a great deal of focus on life skills, because my goal as a parent is to raise my children to be independent, curious, and to create and maintain healthy relationships with those around them. I want them to navigate their social world feeling that they are capable, and have the necessary skills.”

After she answered all of my questions so eloquently for this article, and against the very first thing Jessica cautioned us about, I tried to mimic her schedule. Guess what. It was the most harmonious, engaging day we have had in awhile. I will spare you the sugary sweetness of our nature walk and counting strawberry blossoms, but here is the catch... Did I get any work accomplished? Not really. Was there a full sink of dirty dishes when I went to start dinner? Yes. Did I fall behind on household responsibilities? Absolutely. Could I do this everyday? Probably not, at least not if I am working.

But wait! Hold on a second. I am totally imagining this level of involvement everyday, 8 hours a day, which is the complete opposite of everything Jessica just shared with me about unschooling!

It looks like I have some deconstructing to do when it comes to the way I view childhood education. The neural-circuitry that builds up over a lifetime of not even entertaining alternative ways of learning can be hard to break. I may end up enrolling my kids in traditional school, and I may become an unschooler. I may have to do both for the duration of my children’s education when you consider the possibility of future pandemics.

The bottom line is that I want to make a conscious decision about what is best for my children, instead of enrolling them in school because I think that is just what you do when they get to a certain age. Not gonna lie, the thought of all of the extra time I will have with both of my youngins in full time school is looking pretty fabulous right about now. But the thought of letting them grow up while following their passions without restrictions is what life is all about... not to mention all of the scientific and anecdotal evidence that supports the benefits of unschooling.

Conclusion: Choosing a school for your child is one of the most important choices a parent can make. But in the face of pandemics and social distancing, that school might be your living room. Online learning is an incredible tool that we have to keep the torch lit & the river of knowledge flowing when brick and mortar buildings close down. But there is so much more out there to explore when it comes to educating our kids, and unschooling is one of the most effective alternatives I can find. Although it might not fit every family’s needs for the lion’s share of your kid’s education, the principles can be applied to any time you get to spend together as a family. I hope this article serves you in some small way as you navigate your parenting journey!

Here is a list of resources, if you are interested in learning more:

Here are the sources referenced in this article:


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