Most of us have been home with our kids for at least a month. My kids have been home since March 6 (but who’s counting?), and although we are happy to keep our distance as long as necessary, I desperately long for the days when I could drop my girls off with their patient and qualified professional educators instead of facilitating Zoom calls and digital learning platforms all day.
Parents are watching the calendar tick by in slow motion, trying to catch up with emerging expectations for digital learning and lamenting not having the time or energy to create our own at-home education complex.
On the verge of tears and ready to throw the iPad out the window, I finally felt seen. Can we keep this up (full-time parenting, working and teaching) until June? Can we do this again in the fall if things don’t go back to normal? Maybe, like me, you’ve fantasized about throwing in the towel on structured education in 2020… turning your kids out in the backyard, and letting them come back inside only once they’ve stumbled upon a PhD-level understanding of roly-poly bugs or something.
My fantasies led me to investigate a term I’d heard before—unschooling—and whether an unconventional approach to education could ease some of the pressure we reluctant parent-teachers are feeling right now.
What is unschooling?
The term unschooling was introduced in 1977 by educator John Holt, an advocate for alternatives to the public school system. Holt believed instead of sitting in classrooms and following a prescribed curriculum and testing schedule, children could be educated through their own curiosity, with parents providing resources and support.
Can I just pause here to say how much I appreciate teachers and schools and everything they do? Especially now? That said, lots of families choose an unschooling approach, and their children thrive, too.
A 2017 review of literature estimates 1 million U.S. children are engaged in unschooling. It’s a type of homeschooling that does not follow any curriculum or try to recreate the classroom experience. You may have heard it called free-range learning, worldschooling, or roadschooling. So what does it look like in the real world?
Sorry, there’s no guidebook—that’s kind of the point.
“The beauty of unschooling is in the search for the answers,” writes Leo Babauta on The Beginner’s Guide to Unschooling website. “If anyone had all the answers, there would be no search. And so what I’d love to teach unschooling parents and kids is that the search is the joy of it all.”
If you are still toying with the idea—as a way to wrap up this weird school year, maximise learning in the summer, or as a family experiment for next school year—here are the basics of unschooling.
What your kid is interested in will completely drive the direction of unschooling. There is no outside requirement to meet any reading or maths milestones. Unschooled kids learn to read and do maths because those are tools they need for pursuing their interests.
You may already know your child is obsessed with robots or LEGO, and that’s your starting point. But if you don’t know where to start, don’t worry. The next element will help reveal and nurture her areas of interest.
A rich learning environment
It’s tough to define, but odds are you already have a rich learning environment at home. Do you have access to books? Safe internet content? Outdoor space? Friends and family (even if it’s virtual for now)? Materials that can be repurposed creatively? None of these elements are required, but a few of them together can help a child get started on a path of discovery.
No assignments or tests
Deep down I’m a rule-following, standardised test-loving, report card-waving girl. If you don’t give me A’s, how will I know I’m doing well? Well, unschooling devotees might say that system gives children an unnatural need to be evaluated and ranked.
However, since goals are defined by the individual child in unschooling, they don’t need a grade to measure success. (Unschooling is legal in all 50 states, although each state may have individual laws for how you approach or report their progress.)
Even if your family is not ready to give up on traditional school and all its benefits, you can be empowered by the idea of unschooling to ease up on the structure and expectations that feel so suffocating right now. Kids and parents have been flooded with digital resources and learning opportunities since schools closed. Think of them less as a mountain of assignments and more as a “Choose Your Own Adventure” menu. Your home is a library of unconventional texts and a cache of creative materials just waiting for a child’s idea to pull them together.
Questions are the cornerstone of self-directed learning. When your child asks a question, follow that lead! When your child hits a roadblock, guide him with a question! Tap into your intuition and honour your child’s intuitive style of learning.
If your mind wanders back to phonics and new maths, give yourself permission to worry about those things again in September. Odds are, if your children are being raised by a parent who would dive into pedagogical research to determine the best, most holistic method of education that works for the whole family in a time of global crisis, they will probably turn out fine no matter what the next school year looks like.