Sustainable Learning

Unschooling—It’s Not Just for Kids

Sandra Dodd, January 1998

The separation of learning and fun is the only thing that keeps learning from BEING fun.

Perhaps this will be seen as preaching to the choir, but I prefer to think of it as teaching a new song to an experienced, enthusiastic choir. If you don’t have children or yours are grown, you have even more time to pursue your own learning than parents of school-aged children do, so read on!

My children are 11, 9 and 6 as I write this. They have never been to school. They have never “done a lesson” (unless you count karate, ice skating or ballet lessons). They know much more than I knew at their ages.

We’re unschoolers. Unschooling is the radical end of the current range of homeschoolers, but there have been families unschooling and using that term for over twenty years. (since the 1970's; this was written in 1998)

I loved school when I was young, and became a Jr. High English teacher because it seemed that THIS was where it was at—thinking, writing, helping people discover the magical corners of the big wide world. They even paid me! It wasn’t much money, but I was a real professional, with the job I’d always wanted.

Times, things and people change.

I’m still involved in thinking, writing and discovery, but in more holistic and real-life ways and settings.

My favorite part of unschooling is that it never begins nor ends. When someone finally “gets” unschooling they often say with recognition and a quick life-review, “Oh! We’ve always done things like this,” or “Oh! Just like they learned to walk and talk!” Yes. Just like learning can continue throughout a lifetime.

It is so simple that people can’t believe it.

So, choir members, here you are reading a how-to magazine for fun. (or a web page) I doubt any of you have been paid to read this or assigned it by a professor. You’re exploring ideas, and thinking for fun, and learning without working at it. Why, if this is not for credit, and it won’t “be on the test,” are you reading?

Learning is fun.

Playing with ideas is fun.

My first son was nearly five when I realized it was kindergarten time but he was not ready to go. School would have chewed him up and spit him out. I registered to homeschool, figuring that the next year he would be ready to go to first grade and if he wasn’t I could enroll him in kindergarten citing immaturity (as he had a late summer birthday, just before the cut-off date).

“It’s only kindergarten,” I thought, and we played and went places, sang and “experimented.” I kept him well equipped with art supplies, tools and videos.

The next year he was no more ready to leave the nest, but with a nest like that who would want to leave? Had he gone to first grade he would have been bored with the slower pace, and except for reading and writing he would have been way ahead.

The second child was more outgoing. I thought he would like to go to school for sports and to be with other children. Nope. He opted to stay and play with the kids in the other homeschooling families we had gotten to know, and with family friends from La Leche League.

When the third came I didn’t doubt she would choose home. Why do I say “opt” and “choose”? I ask my kids if they would like to go to school. I don’t badmouth school. They are home by their own choice, which is the most empowering thing I know of to do for a child.

Their friends alternately say “You’re lucky you’re homeschooled” and “School is fun; you should go.” The kids have figured out good non-antagonistic responses to all this. I am impressed and relieved at their natural resistance to peer pressure and their confidence in their own likes, dislikes, hobbies and theories. They don’t live to grow up. They’re living in the present. They don’t relate to questions about what they will do later or be when they’re grown. They’re doing and being now.

No beginning to learning but birth; no end of learning but death.

A hundred years and more ago books were expensive. People went to school because books were there. In England the term for a college student was “reader”—”I’m reading in history at Trinity College,” they would say. In some former times and places the books were literally chained to the tables in the libraries. You HAD to go to the college to read.

Right now in your home you probably have more reading material and reference sources than any elementary school had fifty years ago. Some homes have more than a high school with a library had. If you have a computer, modem and internet account you have more than most universities had fifty years ago. You do not need to leave your house to learn. I think you SHOULD leave, though. Learners need input, sights, sounds, something to spark new questions and connections. Libraries and museums are useful and obvious destinations, but what about construction sites, antique shops, flea markets, farms, factories, mountains, beaches, or just to the neighbor’s house to hear stories of their travels and history? Learning opportunities are everywhere when you enable yourself to see them.

My oldest, Kirby, learned to read gradually and painlessly. By the time he was nine, he could read Nintendo Power Magazine fluently, and use the index to all the back issues. That’s when I considered him a reader. I didn’t teach him, although I read to him, played word and sound games with him verbally and on paper, and answered his questions. He reads by sight, mostly, only sounding out names and foreign words.

Marty, who just turned nine, is learning on his own a little more slowly. He decoded written language phonetically, and it slows him down to sound things out. Others would say he reads fine for his age. I’ll think he can read fine when I’m able to leave him a note with no pictures and know he will be able to read it, or when he picks up the book I’m reading to him and finishes the chapter on his own. I’m not in a hurry, and I’m not worried.

Holly writes better at six than she reads. She loves to write, and we spell words at her request or write them out for her to copy.

I could tell stories for the length of the magazine, but the editor won’t let me so I will say this: Any questions you have about unschooling have been answered before. If it didn’t work, no one would do it. Yes, children learn math, music, to spell, to wake up on time, to finish projects and to follow rules. Yes, they can get into college. There are books attesting to and detailing all these things. There are internet sites, and a very busy and helpful homeschooling forum on America Online. There are unschoolers in every state and many foreign countries who have figured out how to comply with the laws of their area, and who can give particular local assistance to new homeschoolers or those wishing to relax their methods.

This is more of a “why to” than a “how to.” The “why?” in unschooling can be answered with “To create sustainable learning.” Our children have curiosity and joy to last a lifetime. Our lives are peaceful, our pressures are self-inflicted and mostly optional, we’re free to visit historical sites when there are no crowds, to leave town during the week, to sleep late or have guests whenever it’s convenient for us, without regard to school’s schedule. Everything is turned to its best use and highest good insofar as we’re able. We appreciate people who can share knowledge, ideas and stories with us. We seek out interesting “scenic routes” in real and figurative ways. Our days are full and our learning is unmeasured and immeasurable.

When people ask how many hours a day it takes to homeschool using a curriculum, answers tend to range from three hours a day to six hours a day. I have been in groups of unschoolers when that how-many-hours question was asked, and it always seems that one person will say “none” and another will say “all of them.” Living becomes learning. How many hours a day do you live? All of them.

This article was written in January 1998, at the request of the editor of BackHome Magazine, who ended up not using it. It was published online here in April 2013, a few years before they went out of business. I never named the magazine until 2022, but might as well now.

I think my ideas weren't off-the-grid enough for them. Perhaps too much Nintendo and computer.

Why do people unschool?


Building an Unschooling Nest