Five Steps to Get You Started in Unschooling

If you haven’t already done so you might want to read my previous series on my Homeschool Philosophy.  It is a three part series that looks at holistic education, pedagogy, and most importantly, the 4 tenants of unschooling which are;

  1. Child-led
  2. Delayed Academics
  3. Interest based
  4. No Universal Knowledge

In all honesty there is only one unschooling tenant: Child-led.  Delayed academics and Interest based both stem from being child-led and if you are taking the child’s lead then all learning will be different, hence No Universal Knowledge.

So, let’s say these ideas intrigue you.  Maybe you were an avid breastfeeder that did child-led weaning and it seems natural to let you child lead in other areas.  Or, perhaps you were bored in school and felt you did your most important learning outside of school.  Regardless of how you came to think unschooling might be for you the next step is omgwhatdoidoknow?

It can be intimidating launching yourself into the unknown of unschooling.  After all it is way outside the norm and probably very foreign to your own upbringing.  If you are going the more traditional route the next steps are more defined: pick a curriculum, find a co-op, set a schedule, etc.

Unschooling is different.  Since it is led by the child many people think the next step is to eat bon-bons on the couch and watch soap operas while the kids raise themselves.  I’ve often had people say to me “if I let my kids decide they’d just play video games all day.”  That’s probably true.  Being an unschooling family is not very structured but it is intentional and planned.

So you want to be an unschooler?

Five Steps to Get You Started in Unschooling

 1.  Limit screen time.

Unschool families use TV judiciously.  Yes, Dora can teach your preschooler a lot but you can’t be “learning from life” if you are never out living life.  Uncontrolled TV time is the enemy of creativity, exploration, and motivation.  When the TV tells you what is next to learn you might as well be in a classroom letting a teacher dictate what you do next.

How much TV is too much?  This is highly individual.  I’ll be honest that TV is a big deal in my house.  My husband is a huge movie buff and I like cooking shows.  It is so much easier to clean when the kids are lulled by Blue’s Clues and it is easy to think “but they’re learning!”  Yes, they are learning just like the kids doing multiplication drills are learning.  Unschooling is about so much more than learning – it is about growing the mind.  Remember my article about pedagogy?  Where all learning falls into 3 categories: transfer, transact, and transform?  TV is purely transfer.  It is completely unidirectional (and your kid yelling “MAP!” doesn’t count as a transaction).

To get to transactional and transformational learning you have to turn off the TV!

2. Read.

Kids will be voracious readers if their parents are voracious readers.  I don’t know any other way, luckily.  If reading isn’t your thing then make it your thing.  Start with newspapers or magazines.  Find your favorite thing and I’m sure there are books about it.  They don’t have to be hoity-toity “educational” books – read comedy (I love Dave Barry), read romance, read cookbooks.  Anything counts.  Let them see that books are a gateway drug to learning.

Read to your kids.  Have books everywhere.  If you don’t want to buy go get a library card and make weekly visits routine.  You can’t walk two steps in my house without tripping over a book.  It is like heaven. 😉

3. Have Hobbies.

Like reading, doing is very important.  Being a working mom it is hard to have hobbies.  I get that.  You work all day and crashing on the couch is about the only thing you have energy for.  We develop a habit of this so that even when we have a week off or become SAHM’s it is hard to get motivated to do stuff.  But living is doing stuff and learning through living requires a passion for living!

Did you used to have a hobby that you gave up in adulthood?  Can you make a hobby out of something you have to do like cook?  If you had all the time in the world what would you do?  (If reading is your answer, as it is mine, then what is the second thing you’d do?)  Do something productive like sew or something completely eosteric like paint.  Knit, crochet, do yoga or kickboxing, compost, collect coins, sing, garden, write, cook, twirl a batton, do ballet, ride bikes, attend lectures at your community college. Drop one hobby and start something completely different!

Model a passion for having passions and your kids will too.

4. Encourage alone time.

Kids are overscheduled.  Creativity and finding your passions happen when you have enough quiet time to know yourself.  It is not your job as a parent (let alone a homeschooler) to plan every moment of the day.  The most difficult part of unschooling is letting go.  Letting go of the idea that every activity has to be “educational” or constantly steering your kids toward something you want them to do.  Of course, nudging is an important skill of unschooling but you can’t do it all the time and you can’t do it out of fear that they aren’t learning.

If your coming off a mom-tells-us-what-to-do addiction learning to play alone can be difficult.  Here are some great suggestions on Encouraging Independent Play.  You might have to provide some structure at first and build up to longer times but the ultimate goal is that the kids won’t need your structure at all because their creativity will be a well honed muscle.

Note: if you have more than one kid then having them play without you is good but be on the look out for a kid needing their own – truly alone – time.  My daughter has times where her little brothers are annoying her and if I set her up in the dinning room with her doll house she will really dive into imagination in ways she can’t with two one-year-olds stomping about.

5. Talk

Have discussions with your kids.  Reflecting on an experience is one of the most powerful learning tools.  My daughter and I talk about what we did today before bed.  We’ve been doing this since before she could talk.  Now she tells me what she did and it is amazing what was important to her and her perspective on things.

Make a habit of saying “what did you think about ____.”  For every book, TV show, zoo outing, etc. there is an opportunity to share in your child’s inner life.  You will learn what interests them (was he most mesmerized by the guy mopping the floor at the zoo?) and they will learn what interests you that they might not have thought of.  It will give you a launching point for discussion.

Mom: what was your favorite animal at the zoo?

Kid: I liked the giraffes

Mom: what was your favorite thing about the giraffes?

Kid: They have spots.

Mom: I wonder why they have spots?

Kid: Hmmmm, because they’re pretty?

Mom: Maybe we can get a book on giraffes at the library and learn some more.

The great thing is your kids will catch on to the routine.  Aellyn asks me “what was your favorite part mommy?” (notice that Dora and Diego do this in their shows too.)

Unschooling is not lazy or neglectful.  Unschooling is much harder than giving your kids to the “experts” for 8 hours a day.  It requires you to pay attention and be vigilant to what interests your kids and modeling lifelong learning in yourself.  Here’s a quote from Pam Sorooshian on

“Unschooling is really impossible to confuse with being lazy. It takes a lot of time and energy and thought on the part of the parent… The parent needs to bring interesting things and ideas and experiences to the child and this means being always on the lookout for what the child might enjoy. It means becoming super aware of your child—not only getting a good sense of what might interest him or her, but how does h/she express that interest and what is the best way for you to offer new and potentially interesting ideas, experiences, and things.”


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