What Unschooling Is Not... and What It Is

My unschooled, not uneducated kids love learning
KhanAcademy math. This is a screen shot of what my 9
year old recently covered in KhanAcademy.
I never require him to learn math. He asks for it.
As someone who tends to be, not only the token homeschooler in most circles I travel, but also the token unschooler, I end up being an ambassador of sorts for homeschooling, and specifically unschooling, with so many people wanting to know what it is and how it works, and I've written a few posts on the topic in the past, including this relatively detailed one about what exactly unschooling is. (If you haven't read that, I recommend reading that before reading this.)
Yet despite that, the questions keep coming. Recently, a friend also wrote this whole long message to me about why unschooling is bad, but it was full of all sorts of misconceptions, none of what she said actually was unschooling.  And today someone mentioned that she unschools her kids after school, and by a few other people, I was asked to elaborate what unschooling is.
However, since I already wrote what unschooling is, I figured I would also attempt to explain it by addressing what unschooling is not.

Unschooling is not...

Unschooling is not... 
Illegal. I can't say this is true for every country in the world, however for the vast majority of developed nations it is legal and considered a legitimate and recognized form of education. In the US, Canada, South Africa, Australia, England, and where I live, I know for a fact that unschooling is legal.

Unschooling is not... 
Truancy. Truancy by definition, according to the dictionary, is "the action of staying away from school without good reason; absenteeism." Since unschooled kids are staying away from school with good reason, by definition it is not truancy. Additionally, since it is considered a recognized and legal form of homeschooling, it is with permission from the government, negating another definition of truant- "a student who stays away from school without permission." As such, a child who is registered for school, who is supposed to be there during the day, whose parents intend for him to be in school, but instead he is ditching school (with or without their knowledge) and doing whatever, usually is not unschooled. He's truant.

Unschooling is not... 
Uneducating. I know, that isn't a real word, but since people equate schooling with education, I used this made up one. People assume unschooling means intentionally or via neglect, allowing a child to learn nothing and remain an uneducated ignoramus and boor. Unschooled children are certain;y educated; the difference between them and schooled children is simply the manner in which they are educated.

And before I continue, I need to clarify that:

Unschooling is not... 
Identical For Everyone. While there certainly are those that are considered to be "experts" regarding unschooling, no one should be speaking for anyone else about what unschooling is or isn't, as every family has a different nuance to their definition of what unschooling is or how it is done. For the rest of this post, I need to explain that, while most unschoolers probably will agree with most of what I am saying, there are so many different styles of unschooling, some have called it the "unschooling spectrum". Some use unschooling concepts in their parenting as a whole and call themselves "radical unschoolers", some are not radical unschoolers but educate completely as unschoolers, and some people are unschooling inspired, doing a mix of regular homeschooling and unschooling. So what I am saying in this post is how unschooling is for my family, and how I see it, though others may disagree.

Unschooling is not... 
Neglect. As an unschooling parent, it boggles my mind that people assume that unschooling means that I just ignore my kids and let them do their own thing and never am involved in their education, but completely neglect their education and let them run wild, unsupervised, etc. Then I realized that I can't blame people for thinking that, since people associate schooling with educating, and if a family is opposed to schooling, that must mean they are opposed to educating their children, and consequently neglect their child's education.

Unschooling is not... 
Lazy parenting. If I wanted to be a lazy parent, I certainly would not choose the unschooling educational style. It is a lot of work. It is exhausting. It takes a lot of research and homework on my part, a lot of creative thinking and figuring things out, not to mention active, hands on, educating my children.

Unschooling is not...
Raising lazy kids who are unable to handle challenges. This probably is one of the most common misconceptions regarding unschooling, that if a child isn't forced to go to school, even if he doesn't want to, isn't forced to do assignments that they don't want to do, they will not know how to cope with challenges that life throws their way. Children who are unschooled are strong and capable (as much as any other kid is, anyhow), and they learn to deal with challenges that come up in life. No one can go through life without hardships thrown in their direction, whether it is a sibling who is frustrating you, a kid on the playground who said hurtful things, needing to leave some place when they don't want to, to help when they would rather play, etc... Kids learn to handle challenges and frustrations via watching how others cope. When kids see their parents facing challenges, and how the parents overcome them, that teaches them how to rise to the occasion when there is a need. And if they don't just pick it up on their own, parents actively should show them how to effectively deal with challenges and other hard situations.
Educationally, children don't need to be forced to do certain schoolwork that they don't want to in order to achieve mastery. This is something inborn in children. They want to achieve. They want to succeed.
Have you ever watched a child attempting to walk for the first time? That is a tremendous challenge, but they don't give up, nor do they need to be forced to walk (typically). They try and fail and try and fail and try and fail until they finally get it right. And when they manage to do that, they are so excited with their achievements... and then move on to the next challenge to master.
I never (ok, rarely ever) give my children assignments to do, but they do that for themselves. They set themselves goals, to do things that are difficult for them, and then they try and try and push themselves until they get it. And if they can't, they take a break. And then come back to it again from a different angle until they figured it out. As I type this, my son is trying to figure out how to build a specific type of Lego dispenser, "but not from watching a Youtuber, because I want to figure out a way to get it to work that is entirely my own invention". Different days, my sons try to figure out how to make all sorts of different Rube Goldberg machines or redstone machines (like electrical circuitry/programming) on Minecraft. And when it doesn't work, or when the file gets corrupted or deleted, and they need to start all over from square one, they may cry a few minutes out of frustration and disappointment, but then they get back at it until they get it right. Even if it takes many, many tries.
These kids amaze me. They do these types of things all the time, and master so much, and then just keep plodding forward and onward. Without my thinking up challenges to give them. But with them challenging themselves. Constantly.
That doesn't seem like a kid who can't handle challenges.

Unschooling is not... 
Something Done After School with Schooled Kids. When I share with people various things I do with my children as part of their unschooling education (projects, educational discussions, documentaries, trips, etc...), quite a few parents mention how they "unschool their children after school". This misses the whole point of what unschooling is, because unschooling is not something you can do in addition to regular schooling, as regular schooling completely negates the concept of unschooling. There are some people that would disagree with me, mainly radical unschoolers. Radical unschoolers will send their children to school if that is what their children want, but most unschoolers will not send to school, even if their child requests it, since they believe standard schooling can cause problems for their children educationally in the long term.

So... what is unschooling?

Unschooling is...
Making Efforts to Keep That Spark of Love of Learning Alive.

Unschooling is... 
Trusting Your Child. It takes a lot of confidence to be able to simply trust your child that he doesn't need you on top of him forcing him to learn to make sure he's educated. But if you trust your child, you may just be amazed.

Unschooling is...
Believing That Children Naturally are Motivated to Learn. Unschoolers believe that, just as a child as an infant and toddler is constantly trying to learn more about the world and how it works, whether when it is learning to talk, how to clap, to sit, to crawl, to stand, to walk, to run, to jump, to draw, to climb, where the sun goes at night, what happens when they drop something off the side of their high chair, they don't just stop wanting to learn... unless something gets in the way. Unschoolers believe that if you just allow your child to learn, but take a step back from the process, they will learn amazing things.

Unschooling is...
Believing That Schooling Can Dampen the Motivation to Learn. Most unschoolers won't send to school specifically because they want to keep that love of learning alive, and know that in some cases (though not all), schooling, via forcing a child to learn things that they aren't interested, or in a way that bores them, or in any way that causes negative feelings to be associated with learning, will cause a child who otherwise would be self motivated to learn to not want to learn, as they associate learning with boredom or pointlessness or a variety of other negative emotions.
Just on a personal note, while I was someone who didn't end up hating learning from going to school, I did have a lot of very negative feelings towards certain subjects that I thought were pointless and boring, because of how we were taught them. And it is only once I've been out of school for quite a few years, with no one forcing me to learn these subjects, that I now find these very same detested subjects to be the most fascinating subjects, and spend my free time pursuing my own education in these subjects. (History and biology, to be specific.)
This is why you can't "unschool after school" because the very act of sending a child to school negates what unschooling is, the avoidance of traditional schooling because parents view it as potentially damaging. (Please note that I'm not calling school children damaged, just mentioning a belief that schooling has the potential to damage a child's natural love of learning.)

Unschooling is...
Child Led Learning. As an expansion of my "unschooling isn't uneducating", I want to point out that just because unschoolers don't create a replica of the traditional school day at home doesn't mean that there isn't so much learning going on. The difference is that unschooling learning is child led.
The child is interested in something, and the parent encourages the child to follow that interest, and then when the next thing comes up, the parent encourages that as well. Children, as mentioned earlier, are naturally motivated to learn about the world, and if "left alone" (as in, not schooled), will actively pursue these topics and educate themselves.
They may not be learning the standard subjects taught in school in the order that they are taught in school, but they will learn to read and write at some point, even if it is only at 9 or 10, since they will realize how many doors reading opens up for them, they will learn math, at least basic math, once they realize how basic math is needed in life, and they will learn so much more about subjects that captivate them and make them want to learn more and more, and they will retain a love of learning, and what they learn will resonate with them, since it is things they want to learn. And if they decide that they want to do something that requires a college degree, they will be motivated to learn whatever subjects are required to get accepted to whatever college they want to go to, to learn that career.
They will discover what they are passionate about, and will pursue whatever it is that they need to learn to put that passion into use in their adult life, and they will be successful at that. (Not just supposition, such are statistics shown in surveys published in Psychology Today.)

Unschooling is...
Being a Facilitator in Your Child's Education. As a parent of an unschooler, it's not just enough to not send them to school. That isn't unschooling. You have to actively be involved in helping your children pursue learning about the things they are passionate about. That doesn't mean you have to actively be teaching them these subjects (my son knows more about programming than I do at this time; if it were up to me to teach him that subject, he wouldn't know as much as he does now, nor would he be able to progress), though it can be.
Being a facilitator for education means you find ways to enable your child to learn about these subjects that interest them. This can be with you teaching them lessons on the subjects they want to learn, paying for private tutoring or group classes on the subject, buying or borrowing books or workbooks on the subject, taking them to the library, teaching them how to research these subjects on the internet, finding documentaries to watch together or separately, arranging an apprenticeship with a professional in the field, among so many other options. If your child expresses interest in a certain subject and you don't help them figure out a way to learn about that, that's not unschooling. That is neglecting their education. Unschooling is about seeing an interest your child has, as well as a desire to expand their knowledge on the topic, and giving them the tools and ability to become educated in that topic.

Unschooling is... 
Respecting All Methods of Learning. Not all learning has to be from a textbook or lectures. Unschooling recognizes that there is no one, right way to learn, and that education can come in all forms. Things don't have to be divided into fun and games or learning- they can be both. TV shows and computer games can be educational. They can teach science and math and interpersonal skills and reading, but that does require supervision.
Unschooling is not neglecting, and while, as an unschooler, I let my children have nearly unlimited screen time, and let them watch shows and movies whenever they want (assuming they don't have something else they need to be doing), they aren't just given the freedom to do what they want. I hear what is going on, and what they are watching, and when things come up that are life lessons, I have them take a break from what they are watching, and we discuss what we can learn from what they saw, what went wrong in that situation and what could have been done differently, and discuss lessons learned from that.
And if its a show that I see is teaching things that I believe are negative (bad behavior, bad language, etc), I tell them why that is not ok, and why that teaches bad things, and they know that they are no longer allowed to watch that (and don't anymore). People are sometimes surprised at how many movies they watch, but I know that the majority of what they are watching is educational- instructional videosscience nuggets, and even what is not "officially educational", is teaching them advanced vocabulary, etc... and I don't view that as a time waster, and see no reason why that type of education should be dismissed, when they learn so much that way.

Unschooling is... 
A Lot of Work, and Requires Ingenuity. No, not all my children's education involves them watching movies. It takes a lot of creativity, because I want to make sure my children always love to learn, always are interested in what they are learning, and never view learning as a chore. But that doesn't mean I have no desire for them to be well rounded individuals, or for them to learn about certain subjects that they may not come to on their own. Part of my job as an educational facilitator is to problem solve and figure out ways to balance their education while still respecting their passions and interests, and have them retain an interest in and love of learning.
This means that when there is a subject my child is interested in, I open doors to other related subjects that would expand their knowledge base. For example, right now my son is very interested in aliens, so as part of pursuing that interest, we have watched many documentaries together about alien related subjects, including ones about the technology that would be needed in UFOs, if they actually existed, where in the universe aliens could potentially come from, and that documentary included geology, history, evolution, chemistry, physics... About conspiracy theories and reporting. About NASA and its history. About technological advancements made possible via the space program. And so much else. Just because of his interest in aliens.
Some subjects and passions are harder to figure out how to branch out from them, like my daughter's extreme princess stage, but we did learn about castles and the concept of monarchy and governments, world geography, etc...
But additionally, it isn't just about following the passions they already have, but attempting to spark new ones. This is often done by what is called in the unschooling world "strewing". Making things available for the kid. This can be crafts, science kits, books about various subjects, just "lying around the house" for the kids to discover and hopefully spark their interest. As I don't necessarily have the money or room to be buying items in the hopes of it possibly interesting them, I do that less. But I do often start watching documentaries or educational clips in my children's presence, with the hopes that the kids will want to see what I'm watching (don't you know, anything that mom is doing obviously is more interesting than what they are doing) and be interested in that. That's how my princess loving daughter got interested in learning about the human body, and now one of her favorite things to do is learn biology- simply because she saw me playing a clip for kids about how the body works.
Trips to various places are also great ways to spark interest in topics that otherwise might not come up.
And sometimes it simply is "Hey, do you want to hear a story?" and when the kids say they do, I tell them a story about a subject that I feel they should know about.
It isn't so easy. It takes a lot of work and creativity. But when you see their knowledge base expanding, and see how much they love to learn, and you know that you helped them do that, you know it's worth it.

Unschooling is...
Not Perfect. If anyone tells you that their educational method is absolutely perfect with no negatives whatsoever, in my opinion, either they haven't discovered them yet, or they are deluding themselves. No educational method is perfect. Not unschooling. Not schooling. No matter how good the school. Everything is flawed. The only question is, did you weigh the negatives and positives, and do the positives outweight the negatives. For us, for our family, despite some of the flaws in unschooling, I do believe that it works better for us than schooling would. And that's why we do it. Not because I think it is perfect.

Unschooling is...
Not For Everyone. Much as I love unschooling my kids, and as much as I think this is a wonderful way of educating my children, I will admit that it isn't for everyone. I am appreciative that my life circumstances, my personality, and my children's personalities work out so that unschooling them can be as wonderful of an experience as it is.

Whatever method of educating you chose for your child, I want to bestow a blessing upon you that your children will always love to learn.

Are you an unschooler? Do you agree with what I said about what unschooling is or isn't? Do you have anything you'd add?
If you're not an unschooler, did I clear up any confusion you had about unschooling?

Any further questions?

Penniless Parenting

Mommy, wife, writer, baker, chef, crafter, sewer, teacher, babysitter, cleaning lady, penny pincher, frugal gal


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  1. How do you assess if an unschooler is at a level comparable with his peers or lagging behind a lot? Are there any evaluations for this?

    1. There are online assessments and checklists if you want to check if your child is at the level of their peers. I don't generally do that, but, for example, know that the math my 9 year old is doing ranges from 5th to 7th grade math, depending on which material, so I am not about to test him to see his level because I can see it's "good enough", and reading I see which books are considered for what grade level and see if he can read that.

  2. Love Khan Academy! I unschooled for 15 years. Only 1 of my kids wanted to "do school" daily and so she did. She is now a top 10% senior in a regular highschool, getting ready for college where she plans to be a dr. My oldest son was unschooled the whole way through. He started taking community college computer classes at 16, then transferred to a 4 year where he is currently a JR.computer science major with a 4.0. My point is unschoolers follow their passions and they WILL do whatever school is necessary for them to succeed in the career they choose.

  3. So if any of your kids decide to go to college, but haven't learned the subjects required for admission because they never felt like learning, for example, geometry or physics, then they'll just cram in all the math, science, and whatever other courses they need?

    1. I think that's exactly what they do. I don't know about physics, but there was a little study done of unschoolers you can find on the internet, and they did cram math later, when they realized they needed it. So the point being, they learn what they need to, when they need to. Based on that little study, it seems that all of them that desire college have no problem going. It also seems like many of them go to college sooner, actually, than traditionally schooled children. and do better when they get there, because they are self-directed and motivated.

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