What is unschooling?
Your baby, toddler, or preschooler learns to sit, crawl, walk, talk, feed herself, use the toilet, count, recognize colors, and many other skills without any formal instruction, just by living life and being in relationship with you. And no two kids before school, the same age, will know exactly the same things. They learn when they need the knowledge. In the same way, an unschooled child learns everything they need to know, when they need to know it, by living life and being in relaionship with you and others.
Why do we unschool?
In the early days of homeschooling we did some Waldorf curriculum together, and we both enjoyed it. But I never followed any curriculum fully - or even close to fully - because, even then, I could see it would get in the way of living and learning from real life. We tried worksheets on a few occasionas, but neither of us cared for them. We tried a phonics program for Helena's dyslexia, but that ended up being a nighmare (see dyslexia posts for our journey and what's worked for us).
From day one, most of what I reported on the required NYS quarerly homeschool reports was real life learning! We visited farms, went to sheep shearings, made maple syrup, learned primitive skills at wilderness school, read and watched Little House, explored Native American stories and history - and put it all down as social studies/history. We read about diverse ways of celebrating holidays worldwide - more history. We planted gardens, observed seasons and the circle of life, read books about animals, tracked animals, and observed them outdoors - and recorded it all as science.
We crossed over into total unschooling around 4th grade. The Waldorf things we were doing were beginning to bore Helena and feel artificial without a group to do them with. And, frankly, it was getting in the way of learning from real life.
What do I love most about unschooling?
How do you know your kid is really learning without tests?
What about states that require homeschoolers to test?
The annual plan and quarterlies are no big deal. You just learn to translate real life into academic and subject-based terminology.
Testing? Helena did her 5th grade test last year. We did the CAT test, California Achievement Test. It's a test of basic ELA -English Lang. Arts - and math skills. She scored 7th-11th grade on all sections. (Updated to add, she's completed 9th grade now and continues to perform well on the CAT test.)
I will say that while I do not force any learning activity, I am much more intentional than many unschoolers in making sure she comes across info I know she'll need on the tests. For example, we've done MadLibs to learn parts of speech, or we've read funny library books like Greedy Apostrophe.
But many unschoolers just don't worry about the scores since you only have to get 33rd percentile to pass - meaning that you can pass by scoring lower than 67% of the kids the test was normed on.
All that to say that you can unschool no matter how strict your state's requirements are. Just get in touch with other unschoolers in your state and they'll help you out.
Won't people think I'm crazy for unschooling?
And it's helpful if your kids can tell Grandma or others "Hey, I have been studying Colonial hisory and primitive skills. We've been reading Little House and we visited a farm and watched them do sheep shearing." Kids love to learn a few new terms that make them feel smart and sound smart to others. Others like to know your kid is still learning and appreciate language they can relate to.
It's also helpful if your kid knows what subjects are learned in school, knows that building in Minecraft or measuring things are forms of math, knows what PE and recess are, and so on. And please make sure your child knows what grade they are in! I know... some unschoolers don't like that term because it's a "school" term. But it really goes a long way to helping your child relate to the general public. Just assign whatever grade generally goes with that age even if you don't do any of the learning typical for that grade.
If you want to be so countercultural that you don't relate to broader culture, then don't be surprised if people think you're crazy. Ok with using some academic language? Then people will find you very relatable :)
What role do parents play in unschooling?
What does this really look like? "Strewing" is a word many unschoolers use. The parent(s) strew the child's path with a zillion different learning opportunitis. It's up to the child to choose which to explore and how deeply and how long to explore them.
Examples: When Helena was little I had an alphabet puzzle around. I'm always talking to her about things in real life, not expecting that "this knowledge is for 7th grade" or "this is adult stuff". I showed her the difference between crinkly onion skins and bumpy oranges when she grocery shopped with me at 6 months, and we've never stopped exploring the world around us and talking about it. Now, I suggest ideas to her, brainstorm with her, pass along videos I think she'd like, find books she'd enjoy, read with her, help her with her website, find interesting political posts/videos/events and on and on.... I spend a LOT of time both exploring the world and looking for fun resources. I really nerd out on finding fun resources to learn from! :)
How do unschooled kids learn to read? Don't they need phonics worksheets or something?
Can unschoolers do worksheets or use curriculum or take classes?
Won't my child just slack off without the discipline of curriculum and routine?
One of the premises of unschooling is that it's pretty impossible to NOT learn. Personally, I think learning happens best when parents and kids approach life together as an adventure, try out lots of new things, visit places, read together, watch things together - spend lots of together time. But some unschoolers would argue that a child playing video games and watching YouTube all day everyday is still learning. And while I'm not personally fond of anything that keeps any human being sedentary all day (even reading all day everyday) I do know there are many unschoolers for whom this has worked. They're now happy and successfully employed adults.
Kids who have never gone to school seem to not lose the natural curiosity and delight in exploring the world that toddlers and preschoolers have. Just today Helena, age 11, asked me "Mom, how is olive oil made?" so we'll be googling that on a little later and probably watching a YouTube video or two.
Can I unschool just some subjects and not others?
How do unschoolers learn math?
The thing to remember is that long division is really tricky when you learn it at age 7 in public school BUT very easy when you learn it at age 10 or 11. Many unschooled kids report learning all of high school math in a few short months in their late teens - because they want to learn it and need it for college then. When one is motivated to learn a skill and developmentally ready to learn, learning comes easily.
Edited - as a mid/late high schooler this year (we're doing combined 10th/11th this year), Helena's chosen to work with a tutor once weekly, mostly so she feels confident on our state's testing requirement but also because she wants to know a bit about algebra, geometry (she loves it), and business math.
Unschooling sounds great in theory, but does it really work in the real world?
But the beautiful thing about unschooling is that kids don't have to wait to grow up to begin living their passions. Many unschooled kids find what they are passionate about and pursue it long before adulthood. It's not uncommon for them to learn other "subjects" such as writing, math, research skills, history, and science by delving deeply into one "subject" that they are passionate about - be that Medieval armor or baking or art or animals.
My 11 year old Helena has been crazy about animals since infancy. Much of our learning over the years has in some way included animals, and at present she's been developing a website and business around animal herbalism.
Updated to add... in 9th grade she's pursuing a career in art via digital animation/video game design.... Updated again to add, she's decided digital art/video game design would require her to be too sedentary and is planning to go into real estate sales and investments with plans of creating passive income and an early retirement... She also wants to continue to write poetry and see where that leads.
Your kid might change their mind 101 times but the learning that happens in each phase is really amazing!
But how do unschooled kids learn discipline?
Unschooled kids learn discipline out of love not misery. If you love having a business you do the paperwork you hate in order to facilitate what you love. Or you hire/barter with someone who loves paperwork to do it for you. One of the outcomes of unschooling discovered by Dr. Grey was that unschoolers report greater happiness and job satisfaction as adults. Unschooling is a lifestyle of following one's heart, knowing HOW to learn, being life long learners, and knowing how to make one's dreams a reality. Persistence and discipline become natural parts of all of that.
Personally, I emphasize to Helena that freedom is a powerful thing, that she has the power to create and shape her own life, and that some planning is helpful to ensure that we are not drifting but accomplishing what we want. We set goals together, seek out opportunities together, write things in our calendars together. We talk about how so many people have their lives planned out for them and how amazing it is that we get to make these choics ourselves. Is that a normal unschooling conversation? Probably not, but it is for us.
But doesn't everyone need to be prepared for the drudgery of employment?
What is radical unschooling or whole-life unschooling?
More questions about unschooling? Ask away! Also, Unschooling Mom to Mom is a great FB page to learn from! Personally, I've found some other unschooling pages to not be as friendly toward people just exploring and learning, though still very inspirational.