Thoughts on Unschooling

Although I never ended up teaching in a classroom, I studied secondary education in college (along with English Literature). My college education has been a good foundation for launching into my own studies of homeschool. For years I’ve pored over seasoned homeschool mama blogs and books, perused resources, and reflected on pedagogy. I’ve read many required readings for teachers preparing for the public school track, words of time tested homeschool philosophy in Charlotte Mason and the modern mothers navigating homeschool in the digital world. I attended the Wild + Free gathering in Portland when our kids were only 3 and 1 years old, and W+F is always at the top of my podcast cue (followed closely by The Read Aloud Revival). There are so many incredible, inspiring families out there, and I love to listen and learn from them. Aside from mama-to-mama conversations, the wisdom I’ve found most invaluable comes from the book How Children Learn by John Holt. In the homeschool world, many know him as the father of Unschooling. Before I read his book, I used to cringe at the idea of unschooling. “Lazy and unstructured,” I thought, “Unschooling sounds like the reason so many people think so little of homeschool.” I thought unschooling implied unruliness, lack of conviction, and a passive parenting style.

I was wrong.

Unschooling is not lackadaisical, disorganized chaos. Rather, I’d describe unschooling as attentive, natural, and respectful. Learning is not forced, but weaved into everything one does. Kids are learning all the time – unschoolers capitalize on those moments, allowing the natural curiosity of children to drive the learning with a trusted adult alongside for support and guidance. Maybe that sounds like wishful thinking, that a child desires to learn, that a child learns perfectly well without an adult pontificating. Instead of lecturer, my role is to keep “their curiosity ‘well supplied with food’” and that “…doesn’t mean feeding them or telling them what they have to feed themselves. It means putting within their reach the widest possible variety and quantity of good food…” This idea was liberating. I don’t need to force my children to sit for lessons or have every minute of every day scheduled. I don’t have to plan out what I need to say. We need not follow a curriculum to the letter, only preparing for a test that has no real life purpose. These are some of the elements of traditional school that convinced me to keep my kids at home in the first place. And I think I’d fail miserably in that sort of life. But, I am confident that I can set a feast of good, true and beautiful things.

Let Them Play 

Another idea I walked away with was just to let them play. Even before reading the book, I would rarely interrupt good, imaginative free play, but it’s even more important than I first realized. Play is necessary to their development. Recently I was watching a documentary about wild cats with the kids, and in it the narrator commented on the playfulness of the cubs, how their play was crucial to their learning to hunt. It struck me, that it’s the same for my own children. They imitate and play that they’re doing grown up things – mowing the lawn, sweeping, taking care of babies, going to work. This type of play is essential to their development and maturity, as it is with the cheetah cubs. I also found it interesting how Holt would set out materials for science or a typewriter, anything, and just allow the children to play. In their own way they discover, explore, and develop questions and theories. Play, just to tinker and mess about with things, is a necessary first step to authentic learning. And isn’t it so with us as adults? We don’t innately know how to set about certain tasks. Often we need to tinker and explore and make mistakes. Allowing children the same space to learn, rather than just spoon feeding them information, gives them more tools they need for adulthood. It gives them a great sense of independence and confidence in their own ability to puzzle things out for themselves.


As you can imagine, this sort of process is slow. To work, it must remain unhurried, at the pace of the child and not some arbitrary timeline. I am grateful for this gift I can provide to my children: to take the anxiety out of learning, and instead to learn for the joy of it. One of the teas I enjoy includes quotes on the tags and I came across a gem from Lao Tzu, “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” We adults know all too well the pressure that an ever-quickening society places upon the human person – more, faster, better. Yes, someday my children will have to answer for themselves how they will reconcile themselves with a world that is often at odds with the needs of the human soul. But not yet. I want them to grow in a family culture where they’re treasured and their needs are protected and where they are trusted.

“Children. Nothing could be more simple—or more difficult. Difficult, because to trust children we must trust ourselves—and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted. And so we go on treating children as we ourselves were treated, calling this “reality,” or saying bitterly, “If I could put up with it, they can too.” John Holt, How Children Learn

Learning in short, intense spurts

A large fear that looms for many homeschool parents is that of not keeping up with “regular school” kids. Should we be keeping our children constantly busy in an effort to keep pace? I would argue no. Holt points out that people learn in intense, short spurts. They will learn all the need to learn to accomplish a desired goal or meet a particular need. I think this is why learning in context is so important. For instance, my son is not going to want to learn to read because he wants to read sight words on a flashcard. He will want to learn to read because he discovers that he can read his favorite book by himself or because he can read messages (sign, etc) in the world around him. When he discovers his deeper, underlying motivation, learning explodes. Another example is that we bought a clock for John-Paul’s room so he knew what time he could come out in the morning. This had an interesting impact on him; he became completely obsessed with time. For a few weeks he would sit and watch the clock. He would run between the clocks in the house to see if they all had the same time. He discovered how many minutes were in an hour and when the numbers would all change to a new hour. He would ask us what time different places in town would open, particularly the library. He always wanted a time assigned for our activities throughout the day so that he could check the clock. He wouldn’t sleep because he was watching his clock. He taught himself some basic math, figuring out the number of minutes between two times. He learned the corresponding times between a 12 hour clock and a 24 hour clock. And after a few weeks, he mastered what he wanted to and the intensity tapered off. All I did was buy a clock. Yes, I answered his questions, but everything he learned came from his own need and desire to learn it.

…the things we learn for ourselves because, for our own reasons, we really need to know them, we don’t forget. – Holt, How Children Learn, 128

Refrain from correction

 Not correcting my children as they learn has been the hardest teacher-esque habit to break. We want our children to learn things accurately and I think many of us are afraid of the bad habits a child might acquire from allowing them to persist in mistakes. But I think that it’s our view of making mistakes that is wanting. Mistakes are a valuable lesson in and of themselves. Children will often self correct. With continued learning, they will learn the correct way of saying a word, or spell or whatever it may be. They will ask questions, and work out challenges for themselves. They will ask for help when they feel they need it. Listening to my son read the wrong word and not correcting him is difficult to do in practice. I’m putting trust in the long game. I keep setting out the feast; I persist in providing opportunities and exposure to see and do what is correct. I gently urge him on. I try to answer questions directly when they ask. This approach has worked much more effectively than when I would sit down him down and have him try to practice reading with me. The other day, completely on his own, he picked up and read Go Dog Go aloud, pausing occasionally to ask for help with an unfamiliar word. 

These are my big takeaways from Holt, though I’m sure I will continue to uncover much more in other texts.  I’m not an expert in unschooling, and I am not an unschooling purist, by any means. We are only at the beginning of our homeschool journey; I am sure we will integrate a variety of approaches to learning in our Little Nazareth. After reading How Children Learn, though, I felt free and empowered to school in the way that comes naturally to my kids and to me. Something clicked in my heart and when I tested out Holt’s ideas, I found them to be fruitful with John-Paul and Abigail. I chose to homeschool for so many reasons and one great reason is that I am not beholden to educate by the same method of many traditional classrooms. If you have little children in your life as a parent, aunt, honorary auntie, grandparent, teacher…there is much wisdom In this book that will help you teach, mentor and guide those precious children in authentic, purposeful learning. 


One thought on “Thoughts on Unschooling

  1. I’m just reading this blog or whatever you call it!😃😃😃😉
    Be aware that I barely understand anything electronic let alone a fancy name for same
    Just retrieved this from somewhere in my to read box
    Enjoyed reading it. My love to all the family ……G ma j. Gigi

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