What is unschooling? Part 2 : What unschooling looks like…

Welcome to part 2 of what is unschooling? : What unschooling looks like?

This post is the second in a 3 part series devoted to the question, what is unschooling? 

In Part 1, we explored the framework of ideas that underpin unschooling. If you haven’t read this post yet, please check that one out here.

In part 2, here you are, welcome 🙂 we’ll be digging a little deeper and considering what these ideas mean for daily life. What unschooling looks like…

And in part 3, we’re busting some myths, tackling some of the common misconceptions about unschooling.

Some of the links included in this post are affiliate links, meaning if you click through and decide to buy I may earn a small commission from the sale, at no extra cost to you. I am super picky about the links on my site and only share resources I believe will bring value to your life, most of which I personally use and love. Thanks in advance if you follow any of my links, I hope you find them helpful 🙂

What is unschooling?

Unschooling is a way of living and learning with our children, and looking at the world, inspired by a set of common ideas.

  • Learning happens naturally
  • Learning happens all the time
  • Learning is personal
  • Coercion creates resistance
  • Delight and purpose drive learning
  • Trusting children

These ideas are explored in more detail in Part 1. They offer a framework that informs and inspires how we live and learn with our children, what unschooling looks like.

Many families learn about unschooling while exploring alternatives to school. No wonder then that unschooling is mostly seen as a kind of home-schooling. Yet, unschooling is so much more than that.

Is unschooling a method of home-schooling?

The goal of unschooling is not education. It is to help a child be who she is and blossom into who she will become. Learning happens as a side effect.

Joyce Fetteroll

For me, this quote gets to the heart of unschooling. 

But I hear you, ‘not education’. What’s the deal with that? Is unschooling about supporting our children’s learning or not?

Okay, the short answer is yes…. and no.

It depends. 

Ahhh, those two little words, a common frustration for anyone attempting to get to grips with unschooling. But also the essence of its beauty. 

The child is at the heart of unschooling. And so the questions we ask and the answers we seek are likely to be as individual as them. That’s kind of the point of unschooling, it’s not a ‘one size fits all’ approach 🙂

But back to this question of unschooling and learning. The longer answer, well, that’s this post.

But to sum it up, short and sweet – 

Unschoolers are passionate about learning, just look at that framework of ideas, bursting with references to learning. You might even wonder if learning’s all we think about 🙂  

Yet, learning occurs as a natural consequence of living. Learning doesn’t need a special box to live in, special time set aside or special materials. Learning, as Joyce says, happens as a side-effect.

A side-effect of living a full and rich life with our children. Learning is woven into the fabric of our lives and it’s happening all the time.

What unschooling looks like

Of course, unschooling looks different in every family. We’ve all got our own unique circumstances, personalities and preferences. Yet despite all these differences, there are some common threads that bind all unschooling families together. Similarities in how we live our lives. 

And it’s these threads that we’ll be looking at in this post.

So, what does unschooling look like?

In a nutshell… unschooling looks like life, without school. 

Let’s go back. Way, way back.

Imagine how long humans have roamed this earth. Most of the time without the invention of school, and yet we’ve come so far.   

Fast forward to the much more recent past. For some of us, life as we know it. Living with young children. 

Again, mostly without the intrusion of school. And yet, how often do we marvel at their sponge-like qualities? Admiring their curiosity and determination as they naturally absorb and process so much from the world around them.

Like a voyage of discovery, life with little ones can be challenging and busy, no doubt. Yet it’s also beautiful, brilliant and bursting with moments of joy. Just like unschooling 🙂

Learning as a natural consequence of life is extraordinarily efficient. And yet it’s interrupted for many by school.

But what about those who choose unschooling, rather than school? Let’s take a look…

Learning from life

Natural learning

Unschooling is also referred to as natural or life learning, delight-driven or interest-led. 

And typical days, described as your favourite Saturdays, or like a day in the summer – filled with potential for daydreams, explorations, and discovery.

With all that we’ve learned about the ideas of unschooling, we don’t have to make our children learn. We know that’s going to happen naturally. No need to divide our days into learning and leisure. No need for ‘have-tos’ or ‘must-dos’ before we get to the fun stuff.

Learning happens all the time, especially when we’re having fun. No need to buy expensive curriculum. Life’s got that one covered 🙂

Exploring their interests

Unschooling looks like lots of freedom. With our children choosing how they spend their time, exploring their interests and learning in ways that feel right for them.

Life is full of interesting connections and when we allow our children the chance to deep delve in their interests, whether that’s bricks, Barbies, books or whatever, the potential for learning is limitless.

There’s no natural hierarchy of learning tools, with teachers and textbooks at one end, and videogames and chatting at the other. No way of knowing what will spark our children’s curiosity or cement their understanding. Although we can make some pretty good guesses.

In the end, the secret to learning is so simple: forget about it. Think only about whatever you love. Follow it, do it, dream about it. One day, you will glance up at your collection of Japanese literature, or trip over the solar oven you built, and it will hit you: learning was there all the time, happening by itself.

Grace Llewellyn

Following joy

Unschooling looks like learning from what we love.

Since we can’t know what knowledge will be most needed in the future, it is senseless to try to teach it in advance. Instead, we should try to turn out people who love learning so much and learn so well that they will be able to learn whatever must be learned.

John Holt

Think about it. If we want our children to be life-long learners, to value and enjoy learning, then what better place to begin than with what they love.

Rather than making our children sit down and do lessons, we can follow their joy. Just as we did when they were babies. And you can’t beat the satisfaction of making a baby smile, priceless 🙂 

Of course, our children’s interests get decidedly more complex as they grow but the principle remains the same. Tuning into what lights them up and bringing them more. 

If you’re new to unschooling, or home education in general, joy lists are a wonderful place to start. Find out more here

And so we get to the pivotal role of parents…

Parents as partners

Now, you might be getting worried. Maybe all this seems far too idyllic, too stressful or too chaotic?

You might be concerned about where you fit into all this. Fearful of the kind of people our children will be if they get to spend their days exploring their interests and following their joy? Lazy, selfish, unprepared for the real world?

So far, we’ve talked a lot about children and quite rightly, it’s their lives after all. But our children aren’t alone. Unschooling doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We’re right there with them.

Despite how it’s sometimes portrayed, unschooling isn’t a rejection of parental responsibility. Far from it. As unschooling parents, we embrace our responsibility. For our children, for ourselves and for the world and people around us.

We want to be there for our children, to care for and support them on their individual learning journey… Life. In the best way possible, for all of us. 

And we see unschooling as a beautiful framework for living that life and for learning to flourish.

Parental responsibility

Being a parent is much more than keeping our family fed and watered. It’s about nurturing and guiding our children, introducing them to the world and supporting them in navigating its complexities.

We do this instinctively when they’re babies, and unschooling is a natural extension of this. Our newborns arrive in our home like eagerly anticipated guests from a far off land, with no knowledge of our customs and culture. We name the people and objects around them and let them know what’s coming next.

Unschooling isn’t lazy or permissive parenting. It’s not a convenient excuse to abandon our children or leave them to fend for themselves.

Unschooling is not child-led learning. Neither is it parent or teacher-led. It is child-focused. It is child-considered. It is child-supporting.

When someone asks if it is okay to ask if their kids want to read with them, I am really worried that they are taking a far far too hands-off approach…

Calling it “child-led learning” gives the wrong impression. It leads to people thinking unschooling means waiting for a child to tell the parent, “I want to do math.” That’s not at all how it works.

Pam Sorooshian 

An ongoing conversation

As our children get older, it’s easy to forget how complex customs and culture can be. Not simple and static, but full of nuance and subtleties we assimilate through repeated experience. The more familiar we are with a situation, the more likely we’ll assume our children are too. And yet despite their best intentions, innocent actions and natural expressions of energy and enthusiasm often get children into trouble.

Rather than relying on rules, rewards and punishment, unschooling looks like an ongoing conversation.

Supporting our children to recognise different expectations in different situations can avoid a whole heap of hassle, now and later. A quick heads-up that while jumping on the sofa at home’s okay*, it’s a no-no at Grandma’s gives our children vital information and respects them and Grandma. 

*A purely personal example. Despite what you may have heard, it’s not a requirement of unschooling that children jump or climb on the furniture, in their own home or anyone else’s 🙂 More misconceptions about unschooling to follow in Part 3.

Of course, no matter how much information any of us has, we still make mistakes. And despite how yucky they feel, mistakes do have their benefits.

What’s not so great is the feeling of shame that often goes along with making mistakes. This interferes with the learning process and can lead us to get defensive and lash out at others, complicating matters further.

Many of us carry a long legacy of shame reaching back to our childhoods and beyond. But we don’t have to pass this onto our children.

Putting relationships first

Unschooling looks like a whole lot of love. And trust. And respect.

Nurturing strong, close and connected relationships with our children. And it’s these relationships that matter most.

Living in partnership with our children and prioritising trust and respect has benefits on both sides. Not only do we get to know our children better and gain insights into how we might better support them, we feel more secure in their intentions.

And in turn our children have greater faith in us. Secure and confident we’re on their side, to help pick them up when they fall, a safe haven in a big and scary world. And by showing our trust and respect for them, their intentions and their capabilities we support our children’s growing belief in themselves, a win-win all round, wouldn’t you say?

Unschooling is more like a dance between partners who are so perfectly in synch with each other that it is hard to tell who is leading. The partners are sensitive to each others’ little indications, little movements, slight shifts and they respond. Sometimes one leads and sometimes the other.

Pam Sorooshian

Nurturing responsibility

It’s pretty obvious when you think about it. We can’t expect our children to magically adopt a responsible mindset once they reach a certain age. If we want them to be thoughtful and responsible decision-makers then the more space and freedom they have to practice this skill the better.

But allowing our children more freedom to make their own choices doesn’t mean we back off and leave them floundering. Far from it.

Not only do we offer a myriad of options and opportunities, after all the freedom to choose is meaningless if you’re not aware of the alternatives available. We also encourage thoughtful and considered decision-making. Helping them to weigh up any potential consequences ahead of time and supporting them to deal with these after the event.

We get to be a safe space for them to recover, rethink and reroute without blame, shame or punishment.

Our children will make mistakes, we all do. But as we’ve already touched upon, mistakes are not all bad. They’re a natural part of innovation, and one of the most powerful opportunities for learning.

John Holt challenges us to rethink how we respond when our children make mistakes…

…if a distinguished person from a foreign country were visiting you, you would not correct every mistake he made in English, however much he might want to learn the Language, because it would be rude. We do not think of rudeness or courtesy as being applicable to our dealings with very little children. But they are.

Staying curious and connected

This analogy of our children as welcome guests from a far away land is a powerful one. Not only does it remind us of the importance of helping our children find their way in the world. It also appreciates they’ll likely bring a fresh perspective to our lives. A welcome chance to consider our actions from another angle, even if this can be challenging at times.

It’s also a poignant reminder that too often our children are short-changed when it comes to our energy, attention and even affection. And that rather than saving the best of ourselves for those fleeting interactions with strangers, how much richer our lives might be if we made more of an effort to treat our loved ones as company.

Unschooling looks a lot like respectful parenting. Respect and trust essential elements of both. But these aren’t givens in any relationship.

Respect and trust grow with connection and communication. And wither in conditions rife with control and coercion.

By showing respect and trust to our children and being someone worthy of their respect and trust we lay powerful foundations for a close and connected relationship.

If we try to control our children, we’re likely to invoke their natural resistance. This makes it harder for them to hear us, diminishes the value of anything we have to say and pushes our children away, perhaps even closer towards what we’re trying to prevent or protect them from.

When we stay curious and connected we can let go of so much fear.

Peace and patience

When we put our relationships first and nurture them like they matter, our lives feel more peaceful. This doesn’t mean we’re in constant agreement or that our homes are quiet. Conversations are one of the most utilised learning tools in unschooling, and these can get mighty lively and vibrant 🙂

But with trust and respect on both sides we’re better placed to share information and concerns without our children experiencing them as an attack on their autonomy. And our children are less guarded, more willing to share their thoughts and call us out when we’re on the wrong track.

Our children are more capable than they’re often given credit for.

Of course, a child may not know what he may need to know in ten years (who does?), but he knows, and much better than anyone else, what he wants and needs to know right now… If we help him, or just allow him, to learn that, he will remember it, use it, build on it. If we try to make him learn something else, that we think is more important, the chances are that he won’t learn it, or will learn very little of it, that he will soon forget most of what he learned, and what is worst of all, will before long lose most of his appetite for learning anything.

John Holt

While we know that learning is happening all the time, we also know that it can be subverted in so many ways. If we’re stressed, we can find it difficult to take in new information, our focus has shifted to survival. And while we can learn a lot from stressful situations we don’t want that to be our children’s default experience.

Unschooling looks like learning without pressure. Letting go of external timetables, not just for our days, but our lives as well. Rejecting the idea of being ‘behind’, arbitrary milestones and artificial testing; concepts that serve the logistical interests of industrial-scale school systems rather than the individual needs of children and their families.

After all, learning doesn’t follow the school timetable, even when children are in school 🙂 More on this in part 3.

Constantly evolving

When we have babies, it’s a wonderful chance to see the world through fresh eyes. Like seeing everything anew, we delight in our children’s curiosity, enthusiasm and joy. One of the most beautiful aspects of unschooling is that we get to cultivate that fresh eyes approach in all areas of our life, not just for the early years but throughout our lives.

Just like our children we are learning all the time and deepening our understanding of ourselves, our children and how learning works.

Sure, it might seem easier to follow a set of rules. Helpful prescriptions on how much time our children should spend outdoors, on screens or not, would give us clear measures to aim for.

But that would be missing one of the essential elements of unschooling – meeting our children where they are. And as we know, children rarely stay still for long 🙂

Unschooling gives us principles and priorities – relationships, respect, trust, patience. But the practicalities of how these play out in your home may be very different to mine. And different today, tomorrow and beyond.

Deschooling isn’t just an important part of prepping for our unschooling journey. It goes on and on. To some degree, we might always be playing catch-up, as we start feeling comfortable, another season of life or layer of fixed thinking is likely to be revealed. And again we’re back to the essence of unschooling – each of us on our own learning journey, beautifully unique and personal to us.

Naturally flowing into all areas of life

And while this can be challenging, and by no means an easy journey, the benefits are off the scale. As the layers of worry and fear fall away there’s a peace and freedom that comes with accepting uncertainty and embracing possibility.

At the same time, we’re racking up the hours, days and eventually years of strong attachments and connection with our children. As trust in our children’s learning deepens, it naturally permeates other areas of life. Once we trust them to learn, why wouldn’t we trust them to listen to their own bodies, to know when they’re hungry, cold or tired?

Some people see unschooling as purely an educational choice, and don’t extend that trust to other areas of their lives hence you may have heard the term radical unschooling to describe whole life unschooling. But while unschooling often starts with education, as families search for alternatives to school. It rarely stops there.

Some families arrive at unschooling through a different path – as a natural extension of attachment, gentle, or unconditional parenting. These are all forms of respectful parenting, think natural-term breastfeeding, feeding on demand, baby-led weaning and nappy-free living.

Whatever the label, these all have trust and respect for babies at their heart and perhaps this makes it easier for some families to carry on trusting their children as they get older. We discovered unschooling from this general direction. Letting go of school was much harder for us than letting go of bedtimes and ‘screentime‘.

If you’re interested in hearing more about how we came to unschooling, the posts here and here give you a flavour of our family’s journey.

But whichever way you approach unschooling, once that framework of ideas takes hold and you begin to see how beautifully they work in practice, who knows where it might lead you?

Where to go from here?

Now you might have more questions… and the good news is there’s a part 3 coming soon.

Maybe you’re still wondering if all this sounds too good to be true?

In part 3, we’ll be exploring this and more questions, along with common misconceptions about unschooling. So please subscribe to the blog so you’ll be notified each time a new post goes live.

Unschooling is a beautiful way to live and learn with our children. Although it’s not all sunshine and roses. But imagine dealing with all life’s challenges in a context of connection rather than conflict and think how much sweeter life could be… that’s what unschooling looks like 🙂

Perhaps you were hoping this post would offer more of ‘a day in the life’ view of unschooling? We might do one of those in the future. But for now, there are some wonderful examples of what unschooling looks like at different ages and stages here, here and here.

See you in Part 3 x

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