Our “Unschooling” Experiment

I mentioned last time that we are dipping our toes into the world of unschooling. That led to a couple of interesting conversations, and was a bit of a surprise to some who saw Facebook posts of us beginning our semester as normal just a few weeks ago!

The truth is that our fall semester of homeschooling was difficult, to put it mildly. It was so bad that I desperately wanted to put the kids in public school in January. That didn’t happen though, and I finally accepted that we were still doing this homeschooling thing. I hoped that simply being settled in a home with all of our school supplies would make everything better. At first, it did! We had a wonderful first few days. But it didn’t take long for many of the same problems we were having in the fall to rear their ugly heads again. My oldest was extremely compliant, but bored. Nothing we were doing was exciting to him. He did everything I asked of him, but yawned his way through it. My youngest was frustrated, non-compliant, and said that he hated school. That was the last thing I wanted! One of my primary goals in homeschooling is to raise lifelong learners. If what we were doing was making him hate school (and therefore learning, since the two were so connected in his own mind), then it wasn’t working.

It was time to make a radical change.


I suspect that if you ask ten different families to define unschooling, you will get ten different answers! I’ve been reading blogs by unschooling families, and they all take a different approach. One family described themselves as “radical unschoolers” and purposefully avoided anything that even remotely looked like school. No classes, no textbooks, and no math allowed (unless it came up naturally in life). Another family appeared, at least from my perspective, to basically be relaxed eclectic style homeschoolers with a structured schedule, assigned readings, and instructor led courses in music and art.

What we’re experimenting might be more accurately defined as “interest led homeschooling” or even “eclectic homeschooling.” But I’m embracing the word unschooling, at least for now, because it forces me into a different mindset about education.

I won’t claim to fully understand the unschooling philosophy. But the way we are operating during this experiment is. . .

Not recreating school at home. Truthfully, my type A nature sometimes means that I try to make our homeschool way too much like public school. While most homeschoolers take full advantage of lazy mornings, school in pjs, and flexible schedules, I tend to be a bit more regimented. This is NOT necessarily a bad thing! Some of us really do thrive on more structure. But when it came to school, I realized I was imposing way too many arbitrary rules on one of my children and stifling the way he naturally learns. It was backfiring. So I’m loosening up. We even *gasp* stayed in our pjs one day last week (which we literally have never done, in 2.5 years of homeschooling. I mean, are we even really homeschoolers?? Ha!)

Letting children decide what they want to learn. Whew. This, for me, may be the most controversial thing about unschooling, and I really do not know if I agree with it. But I’m giving it a try. What this means for us is that I put away my lesson plans and curriculum, and have been asking the boys each morning “What do you want to learn about today?” Then, we do it. We watch youtube videos, we go to the library, we do experiments, we watch cooking shows, we read books, we play games, we go on field trips, we do whatever will help us learn more about whatever crazy thing they find interesting!

Organic learning. Let me give a specific example here. I used to do scheduled vocabulary words and make my oldest son copy them down for copywork. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t remember any of them. Now, I wait for one of the boys to ask me what an unfamiliar word means. If you have young kids, you know this happens all the time naturally! When it does, we pull out the elementary dictionary, my oldest looks up the word, we spell it out loud once or twice, and we have a conversation about the meaning. As I was typing this, I asked him about one of the words we looked up last week and he immediately told me the correct meaning. Interesting. 

Education as a way of life. This ties right into my beloved Charlotte Mason philosophy. Instead of separating our day into “school hours” and “free time hours,” all of life is a chance to learn something! We also no longer separate our learning into specific subjects. The lines are naturally blurry in real life! Reading a great work of literature can also be an education in science, history, or geography. Cooking a recipe together can be a great lesson in fractions, measuring, and reading. No one subject exists in a vacuum.

Highly intentional parenting. This new approach requires me to be much more intentional about my interactions with my children. I used to be intentional during our set aside school hours, but then mentally “checked out” during their free time. I expected them to entertain themselves while I caught up on housework, cooked dinner, or did whatever else was on my list. I would answer a lot of their spontaneous questions with “I don’t know right now,” missing out on so many opportunities for natural learning. Honestly, I did this because I was truly EXHAUSTED after trying to do this structured school thing for hours. . . with a very uncooperative youngest child. With unschooling, we don’t have set hours at the table for school work. Life is just life. So I find myself incorporating my children into everything that I’m doing more. We fold laundry together. My youngest is helping cook dinner almost every night. We have a lot more interesting conversations, because I am being more intentional about teaching in our day to day life.

Inspire, don’t require

One of the main tenets of the unschooling philosophy is to trust that children will learn what they need to know when they need to know it. I honestly don’t have that trust right now!

I do agree that the responsibility of learning is primarily on the child. Just like the old saying, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. Oh how I have learned this with my youngest child! I can’t make him do anything, especially when it comes to school. If I try to make him, there’s a strong likelihood that he will not do what I am asking of him.

While I can’t force my child to learn, I can certainly inspire him to do so by “spreading the feast” before him. During this experiment, where I’m not requiring my children to do anything specific, this goes back to being very intentional. For example:

  • Choosing wonderful read aloud books for bedtime stories
  • Setting an example by reading, doing projects, or taking classes in front of them
  • Sharing exciting things I’ve learned and starting interesting conversations
  • Taking them on nature walks and pointing out interesting things on the trail
  • Inviting them to watch documentaries with me
  • Pointing out patterns and math in real life
  • Giving them the space and opportunity to learn through play and their own projects
  • Encouraging everything in which they show interest

And this lifestyle, interestingly enough, is leading to some beautiful education in our home. It turns out that my children want to learn all sorts of things! Just not always the things that are on my lesson plan. 😉 My oldest has continued to do math every day, despite me not scheduling or requiring it. He just likes math. He thinks it’s fun. Crazy kid. He’s also started computer coding, animation, and has been reading about American history. Apparently he thinks American history is more interesting than ancient history. I disagree, but to each his own. 😉 He’s reading more, his narrations have improved, and we’ve had some amazing conversations about what he is learning.

My youngest has spent this whole time immersed in the world of science. We’ve learned about human anatomy, we’ve made a skeleton model of the human body, we’ve learned the names of the major bones, we’ve learned about wildfires, we’ve practiced starting fires with magnifying glasses (terrifying!), we’ve learned and practiced all sorts of outdoor survival skills, we’ve learned about types of energy, we’ve done experiments to convert types of energy to other types of energy, we’ve built various gears, we’ve played with magnets, we’ve read all about coral reefs, we’ve watched animal documentaries, etc., etc., etc. By allowing him to lead the way, we’ve done more science in the last couple of weeks than we did all of last semester! He also wants to learn to cook, so he’s watching cooking shows and cooking with me daily. He also has taken an interest in reading now than I’m no longer trying to force it. Now that I’m no longer requiring him to work on phonics every day, he suddenly wants to learn and is initiating it himself. Go figure!

So while the whole idea of unschooling still feels very uncomfortable to me, I’m giving it a try for now and letting my children have greater control over their own educations.

Crazily enough, it seems to actually be working.

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