(From January, 2009)

It all started with this question: “Unschooling is no text books, but learning from life, right?” I should say that it was late at night – not late late, but late enough that I didn’t want to get into the conversation that could surely take us clear through till morning. But the question was there – and it was sincere – so I wanted to answer it. Um, yes? In all honestly, I would have defined unschooling exactly the same way a few years ago. And I guess for a simple definition it’s as good as any other. But no, that’s not how I would describe it anymore.

We have LOTS of books, and an all-important library card. When we want or need to reference something in a book, of course we’d first look to something more interesting than a plain old text book. Given the choice, wouldn’t most people? But if one of the boys specifically wanted a text book for something they were exploring, I’d make sure they had access to it. The same holds true for curriculum, although again I’d have to wonder why – with so many endless options of different sources to read, watch, listen to, touch, taste, try – why they’d choose something as limited as a simple book or curriculum. Real life isn’t compartmentalized into subjects and lesson plans, test scores or letter grades. Learning is EVERYWHERE, it’s all interwined, and it’s all there for the taking. Unschooling is much less about the absence of textbooks or tests or curriculum, and much more about the presence of everything else.

If I had to pick just two words that came to mind when I thought about unschooling, they would be “trust” and “respect.” Trust that given a rich, interesting environment and an involved, attentive parent that real learning will naturally happen… learning that is far more relevant and applicable than any learning that is done for a test or a grade. Trust that children are far more capable than most adults give them credit for, and that they’ll learn what they need to know, when they need to know it. And respect… respect for children as unique and valued individuals with their own way of viewing the world, and their own personal paths in life. Respect for their opinions and their interests. Respect for their individual learning styles, in large ways and small. If an adult asked me how to spell a word, I would never humiliate them by refusing to answer and instead instructing them to “sound it out.” I extend my children the same courtesy.

John Holt said “True learning-learning that is permanent and useful,that leads to intelligent action and further learning, can arise only out of the experience, interest, and concerns of the learner.” Retaining information long enough to spit it back out for a test is not learning. I did well enough in school, by most people’s standards. I got good grades, aced my tests after cramming the night before, wrote convincing research papers. But learning? Real learning that carried with me into adulthood? That came from my own efforts, and had little to do with school. Children who are unschooled do all of their learning of their own volition. They aren’t pushed and pressured and ridiculed. They’re not performing for gold stars or straight A’s. They’re learning because that’s what children do. That’s what all humans do, unless they’ve been like so many of us, and had their natural love of learning squashed out when they were young by being told how and when and what to learn.

True unschooling is not method of homeschooling. It’s a philosophy that extends to all areas of our life. People who say for example “We unschool except for math” (something I’ve heard a lot) are entirely missing the point. It goes back to the issue of trust, and is like saying “Unschooling’s fine in theory, but math is too special, too important to take a chance with” And what’s one of the biggest learning phobias that people seem to have in school, myself included? MATH! It’s ironic too, because of all the things I’ve watched the boys learn, math has been one of the most effortless. Math is everywhere; we use it daily. Unless you make a conscious effort to keep your kids from math, they’ll be exposed to it, and they’ll learn it.

If I’m talking unschooling, I’d be remiss not to dispell just a couple of misconceptions. Unschooling is NOT leaving your kids alone, probably the one I hear most often. In many ways, it’s the opposite. Yes, as any parent that pays attention knows, there are plenty of times when the best thing you can do for your child is get out of their way and let them figure something out on their own. But that does not mean we are ALWAYS out of the way! Unschoolers are very involved in their kids’ lives. They are on the floor playing, they’re reading, they’re researching, they’re experimenting, they’re looking, they’re discovering, they’re talking, they’re listening, they’re singing, they’re showing, they’re laughing, they’re googling (lots and lots of googling). They’re looking for cool new books and DVDs and video games. They’re buying art supplies and science kits and zoo memberships. They’re driving to the library and the museum and the post office. They’re living and breathing and being with their kids.

Unschooling also is NOT letting your kids make all the decisions. I have heard this one more than once as well. It is giving your child a voice, and letting your child know that he or she matters as much as anyone else in the house. It’s showing them that they are valued, that they are important, and that they are members of the family. We have a family of six, which means that at any given time, we may have six different wants or needs that have to be met. There are times when one or more of the kids has to wait for what they want, so we try to minimize that as much as possible. We try to be sensitive to all their needs. I hear a tape recording in my head of a mother telling a child “no” just for the sake of saying no. The child complains – rightly so – that it isn’t fair, and the parent snaps “Yeah well, life isn’t fair.” And it’s not. Life’s not always fair. And children too often get the short end of the stick, just because they’re children! They’re not old enough, they’re not tall enough, they’re not mature enough. The world can be a frustrating place for a child. I see absolutely no reason as a parent to make their life more miserable simply because I can?! In our house, if it is at all possible (and it usually is), children get a say too.

I couldn’t do what I do, and live the life I live if I let the negative opinions bother me. Homeschoolers make up a small fraction of people in this country, and unschoolers an even smaller fraction. Most people disagree, and I get that. It was a journey of self-discovery to get here, to be sure, but I can honestly say that I don’t care what other people think, nor do I feel any need to defend what I do. My children are what matter to me. And at the end of the day, if they go to sleep happy, confident, and knowing with every fiber of their being that they are loved, valued, and respected, then I’ve done my job.

Check out my FAQ page for more about unschooling.

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38 Responses to Unschooling

  1. Well said. 🙂
    I unschool my 4 kids, and it took me a long time to quit caring what other people think. But as I look at my smart, well-rounded and GOOD kids… I wouldn’t do it any other way.
    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Catpurrson

    As a former educator (who, BTW, has NO use for the public school system) I think this is a tremendous disservice to children. They may met your criteria as being educated, but when it times for college, that may be a different story. And what about employment? Most places won’t hire you unless you have a high school diploma. Your kids may know math, but are they equipped for calculus? Or by math, do you mean merely addition, subtraction, etc.? This country has a large portion of the population who is uneducated or undereducated as it is and we are fast falling behind the rest of the world. When a unschooled person wins a Nobel prize or is recognized as an expert in some field, I might change my opinion, but from what I’ve seen of this and the homeschool movement, we are heading for an even larger educational crisis in this country.

    • Eric

      Wow, Catpurrson has a great deal of faith in the “academic” setting–though not public school, so presumably only elite private schools? I’m supposing charter schools are also a manifestation of this country going to pot?
      The craziest part of this statement is implicating homeschooling in the educational crisis–has Catpurrson read any studies comparing homeschooled kid to the general population?
      And regarding experts in the field–seriously? Is this individual unaware that a large number of child prodigies manage their strenuous training and performance schedules by homeschooling? (I’m thinking of a particular national junior triathlete at the moment.) Never mind the many who homeschooled as children who as adults are experts in their fields.

      • bgurrl

        Interestingly enough John Holt taught in elite private schools and still came to the conclusion for parents to homeschool/unschool their children over public or private school.

    • Amy T.


      I am a former educator who currently unschools my 2 children. I have done extensive research into unschooling. I have even taken much of my time to find adults that were unschooled. I enjoyed talking with and looking into the lives of people all over the world that had the joy of growing up unschooled. These people are incredible and very intelligent. I have done my research. I understand you are thinking within a box and until you can open up a bit and see that life in a box isn’t great, I’m not sure you will hear anything I have to say.

    •  Catpurrson, I have a 10 year old grandson who is already studying algebra, trigonometry, and computer programming. He is more ready for calculus than just about every victim of the forced-march K-12 curriculum. Please get off your high horse, pull your head out of that school-sized box, and accept that there are parents and children who will run rings right around your glacially-paced efforts – and make it all seem effortless.

      How is that possible? Unschooling does not waste time trying to “motivate” children because it works with children, not against them. This yields a speed advantage which teachers whose minds are stuck in school-sized boxes can not even begin to imagine.

    • Virginia Revoir

      Links to Successful Unschoolers

    • bgurrl

      This is what educate means http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/educate It doesn’t mean what you think it means.

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  4. I have one question for Catpurrson: according to this definition, weren’t some of our greatest minds in the last 2000 or even 200 years ‘unschooled’ according to her definition? I think maybe Abe Lincoln had to decide to school himself and um, well didn’t Einstein do horribly in the school system and fail math? What about the music greats? I know a few of them were self trained.

    Does this mean all unschooling or people who unschool are doing it appropriately, no way. In fact until reading this article, I’ve been against it. But its no different than the way I dream of homeschooling my children. Forget French or German class, my dream would be to travel the world, and learn the language, culture, visit the historic sites and look at archives. Our math for that term….converting currency…that takes fractions and decimals. As far as calclus, unless you are an engineer or math teacher, do you use it? geometry, well, spend a semester working with habitat for humanity and make arrangements to work with the architects, electrical engineers, etc. The people who use the math that is so hard & get them to participate.

    However, with all that said, this type of schooling takes an immense amount of 100% dedication. Not all children are self motivated….so just like not all adults. When you have a dedicated mom like Jen here, it will be amazing. A non-dedicateed parent and unmotivated kids who just want to play zelda and not go beyond that….best keep em in school

    Thanks for the info! Really made me think.

  5. Jani

    I’ve honestly never heard of this before reading the article and the comments. I think it is amazing!! I’d love to do this! I guess I do do this with my 3 year old because every skill he’s learned I haven’t shoved down his throat i have let him come to the discovery when he was ready and because of that he knows how to count abcs colors shapes and starting to read. He’s well above others at his age in pre school. That said… What does happen when college comes? How do you expose them to other kids? I’m curous because I’m thinking of doing this and would like more info… Thank you

  6.  Just a question. How do you afford to do this? I mean, I have to work. As much as I would like to teach my kids, I just can’t afford it. Also, how do you socialize the children? I mean, I WANT my children to be exposed to other kids of different upbringings. How are they going to learn to fend for themselves if I am always around to ‘guide’ them?

    • pathlesstaken

      To answer your first question, we made choices and we made sacrifices (at times a lot of sacrifices)  so that I could stay home.  I feel very lucky and blessed that my husband has a good income that makes it more comfortable these days – especially with this lousy economy – but that was not always the case.  As for socialization, I feel my kids have a far better chance for real-life socialization *outside* of a classroom of 30 of the same age kids.  Not just with other children (though they know and play with plenty of those too, from all ages, all backgrounds, all abilities, etc) but adults, too!  Feel free to check out a couple of my other posts that deal specifically with the socialization question.  Please note that they are fairly tongue-in-cheek and meant to be light-hearted.  Thanks for the comment.  🙂


  7. Katie Spencer White

    I, too, am a former educator (high school social studies for those who are curious) and a former lawyer (at a top 100 global law firm) and I now unschool my children.  It is the only way that works for us.  It started because one of my sons has Asperger’s Syndrome (a form of high functioning autism) and his learning and socialization needs were not being met in school.  It’s been so wonderful we are now unschooling our daughter and will never *stop* unschooling our two babies.  Here’s what I’ve learned over the last couple of years with this – math is not an issue.  My son (who is almost 12)  knows that he wants to be a biologist when he’s an adult and that to achieve this he needs to study higher maths.  So we study math using text books.  The difference is that this study is not externally imposed by me or by a teacher or by a Board of Education.  It is a goal he has set for himself and thus he does it to meet his own needs, not those of anyone else.  That is unschooling in the middle and higher grades.  As their mother, my role is to facilitate what they want to learn and to help them explore their options.  My daughter says she wants to train dolphins which I think is awesome, so she, too, is following a more formal math curriculum as she has moved through the “every day math” that we all use with younger children.  We are also a big travelling family and the kids have learned the value of foreign language – so we are currently learning Latin (for the sciences and romance languages), Spanish, and Mandarin (my eldest spent half a year in China and came back semi-fluent and it really inspired the younger kids)

    As for university admissions, most universities these days are very experienced at evaluating homeschoolers, so I do not see this as an obstacle.  With “objective” measures such as Advanced Placement exams, any child who is unschooled can prepare for college entrance quite easily (again, they will have to study, but study isn’t the problem for our kids – they love it when they decide to do it for themselves).

    As for jobs, well, I’ve worked at a pretty high level in legal circles advising all kinds of businesses (global and otherwise) and the one thing they have in common is that everyone wants employees who can access information from a range of sources, interpret that information in the context of a specific business or business need, and communicate effectively.  Unschooled kids are learning these skills every day.


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  10. I love this! Love it, love it, love it! This has answered my question-how to homeschool my children-unschool them! I am getting my teaching certificate and BA in Early Childhood Education and Elementary Education for the sole purpose of homeschooling my children. I never intended to teach in the public system or even teach my children like the public system but wanted educated in human development and to broaden my mind in ways of education (my education was rather limited growing up). I have almost finished my first quarter and have wanted to quit numerous times. I battle with their system and my beliefs about how to teach my children (children in which I don’t have yet by the way). After reading this posting, I understand why I battle with their system and that my beliefs about education are validated by others (maybe not many others but one is enough and I have found that one. I felt like I was reading my heart when reading this posting. Thank you for being courageous to express and educate others 🙂

    • pathlesstaken

      Thanks for the kind words, Amy, and YAY for deciding to unschool! There is a whole world of support and information out there for you on the internet. 🙂 Glad you found me, and I hope you stick around.

  11. bestofme

    I am currently, as a single mom, preparing myself for our unschooling journey. My daughter is only 2.5 and as of now I kindly encourage family members to consider museum memberships for gifts instead of toys. I am planning to travel with my daughter and another semi unschooling family to Mexico this summer for language immersion. I would love more info on unschooling young children.

  12. Kera

    Wow, I was just linked to this page after asking about unschooling. I SO wish I could do this! I am a really young mom and we’re pretty crunchy here! However I am planning to be a doctor, it’s a huge dream of mine. I don’t think it will work out for us, at least not this time. Is there a way I can do this part-time or something? It seems like a full-time thing. I can just imagine going in the backyard with her and showing her how nature works and just how everything works. It sounds like so much fun and such a wonderful bonding experience. Hopefully when I’m a doctor I’ll be able to find extra time to go to the museum with her and teach her things myself. I know this post is old, so you might not see this comment but I have some questions..

    1. What happens when LO wants to apply for colleges?

    2. What if she has no interest in pursuing maths but has to complete a test for college with calculus, etc included?

    3. Is the learning unbalanced? For example maybe she’s really interested in science, so would she learn more about that and less about math, spelling, etc?

    4. How do you teach them to spell if you don’t ask them to sound it out? I can’t imagine they would just memorize every word. I find it much easier to sound out words I don’t know.

    Thanks for reading this. I have kind of unschooled myself, now that I think about it because I have a natural curiosity for psychology and neuroscience. So I do a lot of my own research about it! I’ve also grown up completely submerged in the school system, so sorry if I sound ignorant in any of my questions! I’m completely open-minded and think this sounds like an awesome idea. I wish I could do it.

    • Kera, thanks for the comment. You don’t sound ignorant at all… those are very common questions. And I think it’s wonderful that you want to incorporate unschooling philosophies into your life! Have you seen my FAQs? They will answer a LOT of your questions. https://www.jennifermcgrail.com/faq/ Feel free to comment (or contact me through my comment page) if you’d like to discuss further. 🙂

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  14. Kendra

    Right on!!!!!!! What do we really remember anyway, besides how to do simple math, read, and answer comprehension questions? Mother of a daughter with ADHD and a slow learner. Life is much more than sitting and learning from a book. It’s wisdom that gets you through life, and the grace of God who promises to take care of us!

  15. Beth

    Thank you! I’m innately an unschooler and love the freedom it brings my family!. As an attorney, I’m well familiar with the halls of “education” and know first hand that learning isn’t really on the list of objectives :D. My son is 5, the age every stranger feels welcome to comment about having him with me at the grocery store or, heaven forbid, at the park, during traditional school hours. Do I need others approval? Not really. Do I appreciate a kindred-spirit such as yourself? Absolutely!

  16. Stacie

    After a few months of deschooling, one thing is clear, this is a huge journey of self discovery for ME as much as for them 🙂

  17. Michy

    Wow, I have just stumbled across your blog and this post feels like you have just read my mind! I hope you don’t mind me sharing it as an insight into why we are going to home educate/unschool! xx

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  19. Dear educator and unschooling friend,
    I am the author of two new unschooling books that I would like to introduce to key people like yourself.
    “CHESS-PARENTING” reveals a structure of value-based education without instructions that offers a philosophical platform on which unschooling can become a complete system that will even delight the most conservative disciplinarian. This e-book is available here at now only $ 3.50.
    The book is based on my experiences as a single father who loved his girls too much to abandon them to a school desk or to leave their potential undeveloped.
    “TRAVEL-PARENTING” http://www.amazon.com/dp/B018WICUGI
    Is the second book of my Parenting Series. It is a feel-good jewel to read and points at Nature as the supreme teacher, putting parental ego in its place while outlining how there can be actual spiritual growth without any religious brainwash.
    These two books can make a major and fundamental contribution to the Unschooling movement and to educational awareness as such, and need to be discussed among educators!
    My request is – check it out and tell me what you think. Maybe pass the links on to parents or include them on your website?
    I heartily wish all parents had as much fun and joy as I did when my girls raised me to become a really useful dad – the world would indeed be a much better place…
    All the best and thank you for the good work,

    Fritz Blackburn, New Zealand

  20. Brooke

    After much research and prayer, my husband and I have decided to homeschool our oldest daughter next year with no specific curriculum. I feel like we’ve already been Unschooling her all along, so this gives me a peace because I’ve already seen how wonderful it’s been for our whole family. However, she has gotten very upset on several occasions b/c now that we’ve decided against traditional schooling, she feels left out. How can I help her grieve losing the aspects she sees as positive ( aka riding the bus with friends ) without “dogging” traditional schools out of respect to those close to us who have no choice but to “go public”?

    • jen

      Is there a way you can help her still experience some of the things she’s missing about school and/or socialization with her friends? That would be my first thought… finding out what it is specifically that she is feeling left out about, and if there is a way you can still make it happen for her, or at least provide something that in some way satisfies what it is she’s missing. Other than that, continuing to listen, empathize and reassure will go a long way towards helping her with the transition. <3

  21. Brooke

    Thanks very much 🙂 God bless you and your family.

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