A form of homeschooling, unschooling involves teaching children based on their interests rather than a set curriculum. Here, two experts answer your most pressing questions.

By Nicole Harris
May 08, 2020
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Unschooling is a form of homeschooling that emphasizes a child’s interests, rather than a structured academic curriculum. “It’s a curiosity-led approach to education that relies on the natural creativity of young people,” says Krystal Dillard, co-director of the Natural Creativity Center, an unschooling center in Philadelphia. “There is no prescribed curriculum; rather, children are empowered to explore with adults offering guidance along the way.”

Parents who practice unschooling don’t set aside hours or places for education. Instead, they encourage learning as a natural part of everyday life. “As a result, self-directed education looks different for everyone, and can constitute anything from climbing a tree to building a computer to producing a film,” says Dillard. Unschooling can happen in the home, in the yard, at unschooling centers, or virtually anywhere else.

From understanding how unschooling will effect your child's chances of attending college to the nitty-gritty logistics of leaving traditional school, here's everything you need to know about this increasingly popular educational method. 

What Are the Benefits of Unschooling?

Parents choose unschooling because of the variety of benefits it offers, from fostering independence to sparking motivation to learn. Here are some of the advantages of unschooling:

It encourages independence and confidence. Because unschooled children are allowed to explore their own interests, the hope is that they grow into independent, free-thinking adults. “They haven't had someone else's idea of what's important imposed on them, and as a result, we see young unschoolers show a confidence and self-assuredness that even some adults never develop,” says Dillard. 

It builds relationships on trust. “Self-directed education also fosters intergenerational relationships based on trust, rather than discipline, which empowers kids and parents alike,” says Dillard.

Kids are motivated to learn. When students are interested in what they’re doing, they’re more likely to seek out ways to learn more about it. This, in turn, may lead to increased information retention

They can still go to college, if desired. Most colleges and universities recognize homeschooling, and they accept applicants with unconventional learning backgrounds. “Some schools are not willing to take the risk on unschoolers and others are,” says Christopher Steinmeier, co-director and co-founder of the Natural Creativity Center. “We believe it is more important for a young person who wants to attend college to find the place that is right for them, rather than follow what is trendy or allegedly prestigious.”

How Do Unschooled Children Learn?

Before beginning unschooling, parents should determine goals for their children to succeed in real-world living. For example, “We want children to be able to read well enough to understand signage, adult paperwork (such as leases, contracts, and warning labels), and books and short stories,” says Steinmeier. He adds children should learn to “read critically, separate fact from opinion, and come to well-researched conclusions.” In terms of math, kids must understand how to budget, as well as calculate basic computations, percentages, relevant statistics, and probability. (For example, what's the likelihood of rain today, and what does that mean?).

Conventional schools teach these important concepts through planned lessons and assignments. But unschooling parents have an “infinite number of possibilities” to develop a conceptual understanding of these skills, says Steinmeier. 

You’d be surprised how easily you can incorporate reading, writing, and mathematical thinking opportunities into everyday life. “An interest in cooking presents opportunities to read recipes, make adjustments (from a recipe that serves 4 to one that serves 2 or 8), explore recipes from other cultures, learn about how foods and dishes have changed over time, read the stories of favorite chefs, and understand the science of how it all works,” says Steinmeier.

Say your child loves video games instead of cooking. Video games get a bad reputation, but they actually present opportunities to read about tips and hidden secrets, participate in message boards, keep score, track progress, and develop understandings of probability. “The bottom line is reading, writing, and math possibilities are everywhere you look, and when they can be connected to areas of sincere interest, the learning is both enjoyable and long-lasting,” says Steinmeier.

How Do I Get Started with Unschooling?

Are you interested in unschooling your child? If she already attends school, you must write a letter of withdrawal to the local superintendent or school principal, describing your intent to begin homeschooling. If she hasn't started school, you can begin unschooling once she reaches school age. You must also research the requirements of your particular state. While some areas don’t have any guidelines, others mandate standardized testing and portfolio reviews. Check out the Home School Legal Defense Association associate website or more information about state homeschooling laws. 

Once you begin, it’s vital to adopt the philosophy of self-directed education together with your child. Dillard suggests starting each day by asking, "What are you interested in learning about or doing today?" And don't try to lead them in any direction—“let them embrace what they're interested in, even if it seems odd to you. You don't need to invest in new supplies or activities. Whether it's fixing a broken clock or turning an empty shoebox into a dollhouse, you'll be surprised what happens when you let children lead with their own curiosity and creativity,” Dillard says. 

Also, don’t be afraid of unstructured time. “Unstructured time allows children to get out of their usual routines, giving them space to discover what they’re really passionate about,” Dillard says. 

Of course, though, if you’re transitioning out of conventional school, your child might have an adjustment period. Experts call this process “de-schooling”—and they say it's important for unschooling to begin. “Once your child has decompressed from the rigid structure and expectations of school, you can trust their natural creativity to reappear,” explains Dillard. 

How Do You Determine Success?

When practicing child-led learning, parents might worry if their child is actually absorbing the right information. But Steinmeier stresses that success looks different for everyone—after all, how many adults can recall everything they learned from public school? “The more you develop the skills to be an agile and responsive learner—meaning the more you build on what was there from birth–the more likely you are to be successful,” he says.

You can determine progress based on your child’s goals and passions. “For most of us, there is a picture in our head that represents the best possible outcome, and the desire to make that picture real drives progress,” Steinmeier explains. “For example, a painter has literal pictures in her head, a carpenter might have a design, and a cancer researcher a cure. For each, the drive to accomplish that goal will drive the development of a better understanding, a deeper engagement, and higher quality outcomes than any external set of standards.” 

More Information About Unschooling

Want to learn more information about unschooling? Check out Unschooled, a new documentary film that features the Natural Creativity Center and focuses on the power of children to decide what and how they learn. The documentary follows the journey of three inner-city high school students, who embark on a journey to change their education. One of the students, for example, uses his newfound educational freedom to discover his passion for photography, and he’s able to engage with it on a deep level.

Unschooled will be screened virtually at SXSW EDU on Thursday, May 14 at 4pm EST., After the screening, Krystal Dillard will be featured in a free panel that’s open to the public.  Anyone who wishes to join can RSVP at UnschooledTheMovement.com/SXSW-RSVP.

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