"Unschooling works well when parents are interesting, positive, thoughtful, considerate, generous, passionate, honest, respectful individuals." —Deb Lewis

I think we should carve that over our virtual entryway here. Further I hope that as everyone walks in they read it and think "Yeah, I can be that." It's a great vision. —Betsy

Building an Unschooling Nest

What will help to create an environment in which unschooling can flourish? For children to learn from the world around them, the world around them should be merrily available, musically and colorfully accessible, it should feel good and taste good. They should have safety and choices and smiles and laughter.

Schuyler Waynforth said in March 2014:
When I stumbled across unschooling I grabbed hold. I read and I tried things and I moved further away from the childhood I had known to the parenthood I wanted to know.

And the more I read and the more I experienced and the more I tried, the more that I could see a framework. It was my engagement that made a difference. It was my time and my attention and my focus that kept things moving better and more smoothly than it could ever have done without me.

Connie (otherstar) wrote in September, 2012:
My niece (who is now 20) is the one that helped me find my confidence. She has been hanging out with us since she was a baby and I helped her mom homeschool her for a while. We were talking one day and she made the remark that she can't come to my house without learning something because we always have cool toys and are always sharing interesting/weird/different stuff. She never knows what kind of food, toy, book, instrument, computer game, etc. she will see when she comes over. We have created a nice little unschooling nest that all visitors seem to enjoy.

"If you have a child who doesn't like tags in clothing, you take out tags. Some kids find that the world is full of tags that need to be removed and that's what making a nest is about, removing the tags."
—Jenny Cyphers
August 2013

Meredith Novak wrote in June 2012:

Kindness and generosity and joy are important to me. So if I look at my daughter and she seems dissatisfied or bored, I want to do something to help—I want to spread some kindness and joy. So I'll look for ways to do that. Will it help to visit more friends? Go someplace with animals (my daughter loves animals)? Is she happy with her current animation program or is she ready for something more complex? Has she finished her latest graphic novel? Does she need new shoes? Do I need to spend more time hanging out with her? Play a game, maybe (video or board game)? Go on an adventure together? Write together? I suggest things based on what I know about her—what sorts of things make her smile, light her up with enthusiasm, or pique her curiosity.

When I focus on those sorts of goals, learning takes care of itself. That's something that can be hard to see right away, especially if you have some schoolish expectations as to how learning happens. Read more about natural learning so you can build up some confidence.

Schuyler wrote:
Sandra mentioned in a recent discussion that her glass is not half empty, and that once she started looking at the fullness within, it overflowed. It is easy to end up in a morass of bitterness. It is so wonderful to have not done that.
Schuyler Waynforth

Sylvia Woodman, February 2014:
It is our job as unschooling parents to help bring the world to our kids and our kids to the world. Unschooling is not "whatever you want honey I'll be over here doing my own separate thing I'm sure you'll figure it out." That would be neglect. We need to consistently be providing something better, richer, interesting, more vivid than they they would be getting in school. It's not up our kids to ask for enrichment. It is up to us to provide it.

Pam Hartley wrote in December 2005:

Unschooling in my family is partly how we are with each other and would (hopefully) still be with each other if our girls were in school: calm, respectful, encouraging. It is partly what we actually do for and with the girls: helping to find resources as needed or requested, keeping an eye out for things the other people in the family might find exciting or useful, coming to each others aid when its needed, even when not specifically asked.

Now that my daughters are growing up, they are almost as likely to find things that are of use to me as Wally or I are to find things that are of use to them. I am hopeless with most of the electronic gadgets in the house. My eleven year old cheerfully sets up DVR recordings for me, shows me patiently (for the 10th time) how do do certain things on the computer, etc. What has gone around here, has come around. 🙂

Caren Knox /dharmamama1, in response to an impatient mom:
In addition to this time being short, and precious - you are building the foundation of natural learning in your home. Learning flows when needs are met, connections are strong, and kids can absolutely trust their parents, and know their parents are there for them. Some of the core values of natural learning are trust, support, joy, and freedom. You are putting up scaffolding for years and years of learning by the choices you make now. (from Always Learning, November 2011)
Pam Sorooshian saved that part with this note:
THIS is so beautiful and so true. I hope Sandra will find somewhere to save it!!

The time spent mothering and playing is not time away from real learning - not to be rushed through to get to "the good stuff" as some may think of it. It is essential to real learning and, really, to allowing the child to grow up as a whole, integrated human being.

Homeschoolers think a lot about learning - but they often focus on learning to read, write, do math, or learning science or history, etc. Unschoolers tend to take that kind of learning for granted, it happens along the way. Instead, as we get more and more into unschooling, we tend to focus on things like kindness and creativity and honesty—all those character traits that will determine "how" their learning will be used in their lives.


Schuyler Waynforth wrote:
Candy fed with love beats the heck out of broccoli eaten out of fear. And my kids like broccoli even in the face of a jar filled with candy and a drawer filled with snacks. Television watched as a family, altogether talking about Shirley Valentine or giant squids or Sandy the Squirrel and living as an astronaut under the sea, well that's so amazing, it's so many kinds of connection and conversation and joy, whatever fear you live with isn't anything against the absolute pleasure of hanging out together that I've got with my kids.
Joanna Murphy/ridingmom responded:
This is the heart of the matter for me—all the discussion about whether sugar is good or bad, or whether t.v. is good or bad takes the focus away from unschooling and sets my head reeling. The grounding force is the relationship with my children. And that's something that happens in the moment—in many moments. Will the moments be made of fear and control, or will they be made of something more connecting, with substance and trust that they have real thinking brains?

People want to look at these issues as though there are only two options: free rein or limit. Black or white thinking. There is a whole world of conversation and relationship with your children between the two extremes. And that's where unschooling lives—a child exploring their world in connection with a parent.

Are you going to be a parent who enlarges your child's world and helps them to find their own power and hone their decision making and critical thinking abilities, or will you be a parent who limits and closes down your child's world and imposes your own ideas of right and wrong.

Stand WITH your child to navigate these issues, not in their way. The more you let them make important decisions, the more they will think them through and strive to make good ones for themselves.


From a long and interesting discussion on limitations on "TV and junk food," on the Always Learning list in April 2010. That post starts off quoting Schuyler Waynforth.

Just enough peace

Can there be too much peace? For learning, yes. Learning requires mental arousal. If an environment is so still and barren that one's curiosity isn't sparked, then people might be closer to a state of sleep than of excited curiosity. Life can be too dull and quiet for learning to spontaneously happen.

Can there be too little peace? Yes, and in many ways. There can be too much noise, stimulation and chaos. So finding the balance place and the comfort level is part of creating a peaceful home.

photo by Andrea Justice

In a discussion, one mom wrote:

Most of "her" stuff is stuff she picks out to buy and plays with as she wishes. Most of it lives in her room until she chooses to get it out and bring it downstairs. I just don't feel very inspired in my strewing, but then I wonder if I'm somehow failing my dd.
Pam Sorooshian responded:
Are you saying you're never using your own knowledge about what might interest her, but waiting for her to take the initiative all the time? That's too much waiting. I mean, just take the example of games — there are LOTS of times that kids can't imagine how much fun a game is going to be, just from looking at the box, for example. If YOU know that she LOVED Candyland, then you might pick up Chutes and Ladders because it is also likely to be fun for her — you don't need to wait for her to ask for it. She might never happen to see it and might very likely never realize that it is a game she'd like a lot. Or maybe she loves CLUE — she'd likely enjoy MASTERMIND — both involve the same kind of logical thinking. So — how is she going to know that?

I've heard of unschoolers who say they never bring home anything for their kids, because they feel that puts subtle pressure on them to learn what the parents are promoting. I say hogwash to that. I pick up stuff ALL the time — STILL do it and mine are 14, 18, and almost 21. If I see an unusual fruit in the grocery store, I buy it and take it home and put it on the table for others to notice. If a kid is in the store with me I might say, "Oooh look at this. Let's take it home and cut it open."

This is why some of us dislike the term "child-led" or "child- directed" learning — unschooling is not child-led or child-directed learning — that makes it sound like the parent should just be a "follower." Not so — parents are active participants and part of the job of an unschooling parent is to keep the child in mind and to fill his/her life with just the right amount of interesting new experience, chances to repeat experiences, down time, and so on.

The only way to make it "just right" is to offer and not coerce. If you don't "offer" stuff/ideas/experiences, then the kids aren't going to even know what's out there. If you push too much on them, they can feel pressured and that their learning is being taken over by you.

It isn't all that tricky, though, when you live with a kid and pay attention and care deeply — to keep that child in mind and provide him/her with a pretty steady stream of options/possibilities/ideas/ stuff, etc. Invite and offer a lot — it is your job to create a stimulating and interesting environment around her.

Pam Sorooshian more, by Pam, on problems with "child-led"

[In response to someone complaining about her child's activities:]

Is she watching tv because it is what she enjoys, or because you aren't engaged and the other options seem less appealing? Are you watching tv with her, engaging her about the shows she chooses? Are you playing the video games and computer games with her?

How are you engaging the girls throughout the day? Many times parents complain about their children watching too much tv or playing video games all the time, but the parent hasn't gotten down with them and tried to see what is appealing to them about what they are doing, participating in them with the kids, nor really offered any alternatives.

~Susan M (in VA) wifetovegman

It seems lately that more and more people want to know exactly HOW to unschool, but the answer is not what they expect. Looking back at these stories, in light of others like them, the best recommendation I can make is to open up to the expectation of learning. It helps if the parent is willing for a conversation to last only fifteen seconds, or to go on for an hour. Remember that if your "unit study" is the universe, everything will tie in to everything else, so you don't need to categorize or be methodical to increase your understanding of the world. Each bit is added wherever it sticks, and the more you've seen and wondered and discussed, the more places you have inside for new ideas to stick. A joyful attitude is your best tool. We've found that living busy lives with the expectation that everything is educational has made each morning, afternoon and evening prime learning time.

—Sandra Dodd, from Late Night Learning

Below are some good responses, with expansions and 'embiggening' by Pam Sorooshian:

Just live life!

You might have to make a conscious attempt to be more curious and more interesting, though.

Take them grocery shopping -

Right — but while you're there, look at the weirdest thing in the produce department. Bright orange cactus? BUY one. Go home and get online and try to figure out what to do with it. Or just slice it open to see what is inside.

Or buy a coconut—shake it to see if it has liquid inside. Let the kid pound on it with a hammer until it cracks open. While they're doing that, do a quick google on coconuts so you have some background knowledge. Don't "teach" them—but if something seems cool, just say it as an interesting, cool thing to know, "Wow, coconuts are SEEDS! And, oh my gosh, they sometimes float in the ocean for years before washing up on some island and sprouting into a coconut tree."

How about a pineapple — bought one fresh, lately? Talked about Hawaii? Just say, "Aloha," while handing the kids a slice. Or, maybe you'll get really into the whole idea of Hawaii and you'll see connections everywhere — Hawaiian shirts at the thrift store, flowers to me leis, someone playing a ukelele, a video of a volcano exploding (maybe that will inspire you to want to make your own volcano with baking soda and vinegar).

I'm not saying to prepare a lesson on cactus or coconuts or pineapples. I'm saying that if you're not already an interesting person with interesting information to share with your children, then you'll have to make an effort to be more interesting. The way to do that is to develop your own sense of curiosity, wonder, fascination, and enthusiasm.

It might have to seem a little artificial, for a while, if it isn't natural to a parent to just "be" this way.

take them for a walk

Same thing—when you go for a walk, don't be boring, be alert to interesting things. Yesterday, my daughter and I were walking down the street and there was a cat on the top of a car—all spread out, sound asleep. It was a little chilly and one of us said, "That car must be nice and warm, holding the heat from the day."

take them to the car wash,

"Where does all that soapy water go, I wonder?"

cook with them

Make it super easy fun stuff, not a "cooking lesson." Put peanut butter on celery and then stick raisins on that and call it, "Ants on a log."

play with them, encourage questions, ask questions yourself, enjoy their company, Get school out of your head. That was the biggest hurdle for me. Don't picture yourself in a teacher role. Just be their mom.

Just be their really interesting mom—not their boring mom, though.

—Pam Sorooshian

-=-Sandra, ...could you please expand on your comment about the "work" that an unschooling mom will do in learning about learning?-=-
When people start unschooling, it's often very tentatively. After a while, instead of telling stories of what they've heard other people did, they have stories of what their own kids have done, learned, seen, known.

That's one kind of learning.

Sometimes people start unschooling and they're doing more chattering than looking, and more asserting than questioning (not chattery questioning, but soul questioning). It's not as good a beginning, and at some point they do start really observing their children, and really thinking about the why and what of learning.

But any time a mom thinks there's nothing to know, I don't think she knows nearly enough.
When a mom thinks unschooling is doing nothing, she's not doing nearly enough.
If a mom thinks unschooling will take none of her time, she needs to spend a LOT of her time (more than those who knew it would be a life change) figuring out how to spend time to be with her child and what she can do, even when her child's not there, to help unschooling work better.

I cringe when I hear/read/see a mom thinking unschooling will take less effort and cost less than having children in public school. Anyone unschooling to save time and money is going the wrong direction. It might cost less in absolutely-required expenditure compared to buying a curriculum or paying private school tuition, and most unschoolers I know are content with plain or used or funky clothes (compared to school uniforms or required fashions and name brand things that might get stolen or lost at school). But if parents don't want to spend ANY money on games, toys, museums, out-of-town trips, books, whatever it is the kids might be interested in, then I think that's not the best the parents could do as unschoolers.

There's a basis, a foundation, on which confident, workable unschooling is built, and most of it involves confidence, and confidence can't come without examination of one's purpose, priorities and principles. It takes a while to figure those things out, and while they can be figured out at the same time unschooling is unfolding, and will probably continue to evolve (maybe even after the kids are grown), it's not "nothing" to do that.

Once someone was asking how many hours she should spend with her child, or something, and I said at least as many hours as she would've been in school, counting transportation, and there seemed to be some shock and surprise in the audience. So that made me want to say (I didn't, but should've) TWICE as much time as she would've spent in school. Because honestly, a child shouldn't lose the mom-time she would've had at night and on weekends, should she?

The shock probably came from someone who thought those hours would be teacher-style hours, of being stuck in one place doing something not too fun. That vision can only come from someone who hasn't looked into unschooling enough to know that the best unschooling hours are fun, natural, real activities. They needed to learn more about learning.


Joyce Fetteroll, on helping people see principles regardless of their particular circumstances:
"But I do think that it's hard for others, who have two parents in the house, to understand how those who have to do things a bit differently (single parents, a parent with a chronic illness, etc.). We do the best we can."
As should everyone.

It's not a matter of not understanding. Obviously families with two parents will give suggestions they're familiar with.

The principles work the same regardless. The principles of seeing family money as money for the whole family is the same whether there's $100 left after the rent is paid or $2. The principles of giving 100% is the same whether you have 100% of your peak energy or, as Diana said, 16%.

Just because there isn't money, that doesn't mean there aren't ways to get things. Barter and trade have been around since before money was invented. 🙂

We try to help people see the principles. Examples of how we've managed to implement the principles help most people understand the principles better. But just because we can't give examples that you can relate to doesn't mean the principles don't work or that there isn't a solution. People who look at what they have and how they can work with it find the way quicker (and are happier) than those who look at what they don't have. That sounds harsh but it's true for everyone, regardless of how fortunate someone feels someone else must be. It's not easy! It's a *choice* to focus on the positive—a choice one often needs to remember to make repeatedly—because the alternative gets in the way of moving toward something better. Rather than "No, that won't work," a more idea-generating response is "How have people found that to work on a limited budget?"

Re: Can i be a good unschooling mom if....

Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage.

~Anais Nin

This came from a Quote of the Week list. Although she uses the word "courage," it's what is discussed on this list sometimes about making life bigger, more sparkly, about living in the world, about creating a good nest.

I think of it as confidence. They're similar. Confidence grows from the inside, though, while courage can be reckless.

Marty Dodd, my middle child (who's 18 and so not much of a child anymore) is living in a big world. I know that he's shy, and the ways that he's shy, but he's also confident, and some of the confidence comes from experience and feedback. Learning.

The feedback from school and in school is so very often discouraging and negative. Even the "best students" keep being reminded that every school has top students and the competition's fierce.

We were talking about javelinas yesterday, my sister-in-law-of-sorts and Marty and me. Her grandfather had a javelina head mounted on the wall in his den and the grandkids were afraid of the whole room. We were talking about how small they are, and how scary, and I've never seen one in the wild and hope never to. She's older and lives further south and has seen some.

Javelinas are fierce.
Thoughts about going into the world and finding friends and jobs and opportunities shouldn't be thought of as "fierce." That isn't confidence building. Schools claim to expand kids' lives, but at the same time they specialize in shrinking them. Kids who aren't "good students," their lives start shrinking from the time they're six or seven. They don't get courage or confidence.

So when you're thinking about what unschooling can bring into your life, don't forget confidence, or courage. And do things to build that, so your children's lives and worlds expand.

(on Always Learning, November 1, 2007)
If you're thinking "what the heck is a javelina?" it's pronounced "Have a leena" and they're little wild pigs with tusks. Not good things to have in a nest, unless you're the mama javelina!