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What Is Unschooling?

By Maryann Turner
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #12, 1996.

Maryann Turner explains what it is and why it works for her.
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Maryann Turner

The topic of unschooling can quickly start a lively conversation among home educators. The pros, the cons, the validity, and the whys and hows are always of great interest whenever someone utters the word "unschooling."

Whether we call it Christian unschooling, relaxed homeschooling, or flexible homeschooling (I've even heard it called God-ordained, parent-directed, child-implemented relaxed homeschooling) it still remains an educational philosophy and option worth exploring by the homeschooling family.

Unschooling uses everyday life experiences as the building blocks for your child's education. It is unstructured and informal. John Holt, an early pioneer in the homeschool movement, believed that the child's natural curiosity about the world, and natural desire to learn should be the motivating factor in education. He encouraged parents and educators to allow children to explore the things that interest them, and learn at their own pace. Our job, as parents, is to guide and help our children as they pursue their interests.

Parents as Guides on the Side

When people ask me how I teach my children, I usually reply, "I don't. I just hang around to answer their questions and point them in the right direction." Learning is an all-day, everyday endeavor at our house. I don't set aside a separate time each day for "school" or a separate place in our home that is used exclusively for "school." We learn together as we live together.

When deciding on a homeschooling philosophy, whether it is unschooling or any of the various other methods, you have to decide what are acceptable ways for your child to spend his time each day. If you surround your child with learning opportunities, he will almost invariably use those opportunities to learn. . . but if you surround your child with "twaddle" he will twaddle away his education. So as an unschooling parent, you are still responsible to make sure that your child's environment is rich in opportunity, example, and encouragement.

The first thing you have to do to be a successful unschooling family, is to educate yourself. Research and read about different methods to present basic educational objectives, so when the opportunities arise, you will be prepared. For instance, when your 6-year-old becomes enamored with the idea of reading like Mommy does, you need to have a plan of action ready to guide him to becoming a reader.

Reading by Accident

Most homeschooling parents love books. So do unschoolers. If you've decided the relaxed atmosphere is something you want to pursue, you'll probably forego the usual curriculum-type material, although having some on hand for reference might be a good idea. You never know, your 8-year-old might suddenly develop a fascination for sentence structure! Believe me, it can happen.

Books make good starting points for all kinds of learning adventures. Fill your house with the gift of words, and read together. When your child sees and hears the written word, he naturally wants to learn to read . Once the desire is there, the rest gets easier and easier.

I jokingly say that my youngest daughter learned to read by accident. Now she "accidentally" follows us around all day with a book in her hand, so she can read to us. . . and anyone else that happens to be within hearing range. She actually learned to read while being entertained in her highchair. (Isn't that what all moms do to keep a busy toddler occupied, while her siblings are reading or writing?) When she was 3 years old, I would give her a crayon and piece of paper to keep her busy. After a short while, I started writing different letters of the alphabet on the sheet. It wasn't long before she was copying them, in her not-so-wonderful baby handwriting. Nonetheless, I could decipher the letters. Somewhere down the line, I began to say the sounds as I wrote them, and the letters turned into words. One day shortly before her fourth birthday, she picked up one of her brother's storybooks and began to read it. I thought she had memorized it. Lo and behold, she ran over to the bookshelf and retrieved another one. She read that one too! Two years later, she is reading The Story of King Arthur and his Knights and The Swiss Family Robinson.

Goodies Galore

Other items of benefit to unschoolers are games, art supplies, project and building supplies (blocks and LEGO bricks for the younger set), educational videos, and computer programs. If you are just dying to go to the bookstore or curriculum fair and stock up on all the great material , don't despair! There is plenty out there that unschoolers can delight in adding to their bookshelves and "unschool" cabinets. All you have to do is look through the many catalogs to see the vast assortment of games, how-to books, supplies, and fun educational material that's available.

Loving to Learn

The most exciting part of unschooling is watching your children learn to think for themselves, watching the excitement in their eyes when they are working on some elaborate project they've invented, and watching them enter the adult world one step at a time, with confidence.

As our children have grown, we have been blessed to see the results of giving them the chance to pursue the things that interest them.

Our oldest daughter loves to write. She successfully completed her first semester of college recently. At age 12, she was the youngest student ever enrolled at that campus.

Our 10-year-old is a builder and a planner. He helped pick out the computer program the local college used for their Basic Electricity class last year. The program was a gift for his dad for Father's Day, but our son quickly learned to use the program. My husband and my husband's college professor were so impressed that the college decided to purchase the program for the electricity department.

Our 8-year-old son recently decided that learning about science is the greatest endeavor in the world. Now he's soaking it up like a sponge.

And of course, there's our 6-year-old following me around with a book in hand, as I type this article. So I guess, as a family, we are covering just about every subject, because each child shares his wonderful new knowledge with the entire family.

Unschooling, relaxed homeschooling, or flexible homeschooling - which ever you choose to call it - is an option for parents that feel comfortable trusting their children's natural desire to learn. It allows the children an opportunity to learn at their own pace, in their own way. It gives them the freedom to enjoy their childhood. After all, chasing butterflies can be a science lesson, and learning to fix a bicycle chain uses all kinds of mechanical reasoning skills.

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