Unschooling, also known as organic or child-led learning, is a form of home-schooling that does not utilize a formal, pre-packaged curriculum or rigid lesson plans. Instead, unschooling families choose to draw their educational resources from a multitude of sources, mainly hands-on activities as opposed to texts, and “use the whole world as their child’s classroom”. Learning is interest based, following the child’s passions instead of a guideline of what should be taught at a certain grade level or at what depth. It is not sequential, and many times a child’s interests in one subject area may cause them to “fall behind” in others for a time. Unschooling parents see this as a natural progression of the child’s development, and have faith that in time all subjects will eventually be met.

There are many reasons a family may choose to unschool. For some families it is a bridge to reawaken the child’s enthusiasm for learning after a poor public school experience. For others it is a decision based on philosophical beliefs. For some, they may feel they that it suits themselves or their child best – either the feeling that one would like to homeschool but doesn’t feel “organized” enough to follow a strict lesson plan, or the feeling that formal lessons do not suit the child’s learning style. And in fact, for many gifted or learning disabled children, unschooling may indeed be the best path to ensuring their personal educational success.
Some families choose to unschool only one child out of several. Some families begin their homeschooling careers with a curriculum and then slowly progress into unschooling. And still others unschool for the early years, but then switch to a more strict curriculum as the child approaches high school age.
We all want the absolute best for our children in all things (if we did not, we’d be busy reading Cosmo, not articles on the various methods of homeschooling). This desire to provide our children with the very best we can oftentimes leads to doubt and second-guessing ourselves. For the parent that has chosen to unschool, a huge leap of faith has been made – the faith that a child does indeed want to learn, will learn, and can manage their own education in time with limited assistance from the adults around them. Unschooling parents see themselves not as teachers, but rather as facilitators, showing the child how to acquire the knowledge they want as opposed to telling them what they need to know and when they need to know it.
This leap of faith can be daunting at times. You may feel that your child is falling behind their peers if they cannot read, write, or do simple math by a certain age. You will need to examine these fears you have, and you may find yourself examining them frequently! It can be a great help at times to remind yourself that “life is a journey, not a destination”. Try to remember all the parenting books you read back when your child was an infant. Did they all advise that the child who seemed quiet or sleepy (or cranky!) was simply preparing himself to hit another milestone? Well, older children are really no different! You may very well find that the child who had no interest in reading one day is reading at college level the next. It does happen, and a lot more often than you might think!! For some unschooling parents, the basics may not be their fear. They may feel that some subjects (usually the higher maths and sciences) must be “schooled” in order to be learned at all. There are many, many resources available online for parents who decide they would like to unschool these subjects as their child’s interest develops. Remember that your faith is in the child, not in your old high school chemistry teacher (you know, the one whose class you yourself failed twice), and breathe! Listen to your child and trust in yourself.
What if you have been unschooling for awhile now and feel it’s just not working out for your family? Contrary to what others in the homeschooling community may say, unschooling burn-out does happen, and it is very real. The first step in deciding where you go next is to take a good look at how you, as the parent, are feeling. Are you feeling stressed, or are you feeling bored? Or maybe you are just frustrated and losing faith in your child’s desire to learn anything more than which comic books he prefers collecting? If you are feeling stressed, try taking inventory of how many activities your child participates in weekly. Some of us, in our eagerness to make sure our children have access to the greatest amount of resources possible, end up scheduling far too many outside lessons and/or activities. Library and museum trips count in this! We all need downtime, and that includes children. On the other hand, if you the parent are feeling bored, that is an excellent indicator you are not doing nearly enough. Try to find something new – a project, book, game, math manipulative, anything – to engage yourself and your child. You should find that one new activity leads to another, until you have managed to alleviate the boredom – and picked up a few new interests along the way! And if your child should happen to be the one whose interest does not stretch beyond comic books, try taking a different approach in your attitude. Find out who in your social circle is a gifted artist, and try to arrange drawing lessons. Encourage your child to read the biographies of Stan Lee and other famous comic artists. Allow the interest to run its course (if it does!), and do not for one moment doubt that this experience is valuable to your child’s development! We all suffer doubts, we all suffer burn-out. The trick is to see beyond our fears and move on in our thinking and attitude.
What about college and work opportunities for the child who has been unschooled? In today’s times, with the popularity legal homeschooling has enjoyed, the most your child should need to apply for college will be transcripts of his SAT or ACT scores. Many unschooling parents find themselves coaching their teens in preparation to sit for these exams. Does this contradict the principles of unschooling? Not if the child shows interest in taking them!! Many study guides with answer keys are available either online or at the local bookstore, therefore the parent need not worry if their own scores years ago were less than brilliant. Unschooled children today have all the same opportunities to attend college that children homeschooled with a more “traditional” curriculum have. What about work? Will an unschooled child ever develop the discipline needed to hold down a job? Those of us with unschooled children know the answer to that is yes!! And we have faith that not only will the discipline be there, but that our children will find their niche in life much sooner than their peers. They have, after all, been given reign to explore all possibilities – to find those which suited them, and those that did not, from a very early age.
Raising children is a project, an evolutionary work, in which we are constantly evaluating our successes and failures. For those of us who have made the decision to homeschool, we may face constant criticism from relatives and friends. For those of us who have chosen to pursue the unschooling method, the criticism is likely to be worse. Unschooling is not for everyone – not for every parent, nor for every child. For those that can make the leap of faith, however, true miracles will transpire … the child who was never given a formal lesson will suddenly be reading on their own, the child who was never “taught” to multiply numbers will suddenly be doing just that. It is truly quite a beautiful sight to witness a child growing, and an even more beautiful sight to witness a child learning.
Kellie Curtis
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