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Several Definitions of Unschooling

There are as many different ways of defining unschooling as there are people doing it. Reading through what various people have to say about it may help you to a better understanding, or at least be interesting and make you think! These are not meant to be complete definitions.

Unschooling is primarily about process not content. The process of learning, the process of knowing yourself, openness, confidence, self-determination, independent thinking, critical thinking....none of which one gets when following other people's agenda. Making one's own agenda is what it is all about. Again this is done not in isolation but in the context of ones family and community.
—Joel Hawthorne

Unschooling isn't a method of instruction, it's a different way of looking at learning.

—Linda Wyatt

Unschooling is following your children's lead. Allowing them to learn from a wide variety of experiences and resources. Start right from where you are and enjoy.


An unschooling moment of realization (one of those things that you know, but have a moment of knowing it even more): Learning is learning whether or not it's planned or recorded or officially on the menu. Calories are calories whether or not the eating is planned or recorded or officially on the menu.

—Pam Sorooshian

Unschooling is like the old Open Classroom research and theories. If kids are given an interesting and rich environment they will learn. (All kids learn anyway, all the time.)

—Sandra Dodd

Unschooling doesn't mean not learning — it means learning without the trappings of school. It's not unlearning or uneducating. It's only unschooling — it points out a contrast in approaches to learning. My unschooled kids are learning as much or more than their schooled friends (and that includes home schooled or institution schooled).

—Pam Sorooshian

I think John Holt's ending in the book "How Children Learn" is a great definition of unschooling. "Birds fly, fish swim, man thinks and learns. Therefore, we do not need to motivate children into learning by wheedling, bribing or bullying. We do not need to keep picking away at their minds to make sure they are learning. What we need to do, and all we need to do, is bring as much of the world as we can into the school and classroom (in our case, into their lives); give children as much help and guidance as they ask for; listen respectfully when they feel like talking; and then get out of the way. We can trust them to do the rest."

—Lisa Wood

I don't rely upon a curriculum, for there is no question that curriculums came from the public school model. If I home school because I see the fallacy of public education, then I discard the entire model and start from scratch. Along the way, I may find something in the model that does work, but I haven't found it yet.


I think ideas are easier to wrangle with if we can nail them down, get at the essence of them, put them into a box. Trying to get at the essence of unschooling is like trying to get at the essence of life.

For us, unschooling *is* life. Our lives are a balance of needs and desires, hopes and fears, love and tears, peace and upheaval — you name it, and it's there. Learning is a part of all of it, not separate from it.

When I require something of my children, it is usually because there is an immediate and very real *need* for it — to keep them healthy and safe, to keep the family functioning, to respect someone else's needs or feelings, etc. Certainly there are things I think would be useful, even essential for them to know in order to function independently as adults. These things are so obviously practical and useful in our everyday lives that I can't fathom them not seeing a need to learn them at some point.

There are many, many more things that I hope they will explore, and these I will certainly open doors to for them. But I believe that by far the most valuable things for them to know are what they themselves find interesting and useful. I trust them to choose and pursue what they will, and I trust that they will become competent, capable and knowledgeable adults in the process.

I respect their needs, feelings and desires. I believe that young children's needs include being shielded from the responsibility of making decisions they do not yet have the knowledge and experience to make — things for which they should not have to bear the consequences — and this is my job as a parent. It is a tricky to job to balance our children's needs with their desires, especially when they can't yet see that they are sometimes different, or when they are diametrically opposed. I don't see it as coercion or conditional freedom, but rather as a real-life lesson in making decisions, guidance, parenting. From the time that they are able to understand the choices, they are part of the process.

Freedom and responsibility go hand in hand. What responsibility I take for my children limits their own, and thus limits their freedom. They are *dependent* upon me. As an example, before they can cook, I prepare their food, and they eat from what I prepare. Their choices are limited to what I supply, *though I always do my best to meet both their needs and likes*. I in turn am limited by the household budget, and bound by my responsibility to look after their health. When I do choose contrary to what they *desire*, I explain my choice, and I respect their feelings about it, no matter how unpleasant.

As children are ready for more responsibility, they gain more freedom. They are maturing, growing up, learning to make good decisions. This is life. It is a process, a work in progress. Unschooling.

—Laura Derrick

There was a debate about whether someone could use schedules and textbooks and still be considered unschooling. The consensus was that textbooks and unschooling are not mutually exclusive. Most unschoolers have textbooks in the house — sometimes lots of textbooks. The schedule part is less cut-and-dried. You see, there's the coercion part of the equation, too. There's the trusting your child's innate ability and interest in learning. I think the strongest and truest statement was something along the lines of, 'Until you completely trust in your children and unschooling you won't get the full benefit.' I didn't believe it at the time, and I don't think most people do until they try it. I believe it now, because I see it working in my own family.

—Lisa Caryl

In response to the question Wouldn't the term 'natural learning' be more affirming than the use of the negative in the term 'unschooling'? Suzanne Carter, a poet and homeschooling mom, wrote:

Lots of people make this point, but I never see the negation as negative in a value-judgment sense when I use the word—to me unschooling is as positive as unchaining, unbinding, unleashing, unfolding, unfurling, unlimiting....

All mean freedom and growth and vast possibilities to me.

—Zann Carter

Unschooling is trusting in a child's natural curiosity to teach them what they need to know. The parent is there to answer questions, talk, infect the kids by their own curiosity about life! (though curious about what you're interested rather in what you think would be good for the kids to be interested in!), bring in cool resources (that the kids can feel free to ignore if it just isn't the right moment for their interest to ignite).

The hard parts are:

trusting natural curiosity to draw your child to what they need to learn when. (Math is fascinating. Kids only get turned off to it by the boring way school approaches it.)

trusting a child's natural schedule rather than the school imposed one (eg, that the child will read eventually even if they aren't doing so at 7 because reading is always a pleasurable activity not an imposed tedious one, they will multiply even if they aren't doing it at 9)

trusting that it's okay for kids to learn things out of order! It doesn't bother kids at all to pick up interesting tidbits about Thomas Jefferson, knightly armor, Egyptian mummies, WW2 combat planes. They make their own connections as they get more and more things in place. (Later, an orderly approach will be fascinating to them as they can make even more connections.)

seeing real learning that is right there all around you, for example, the things that need sorted, the cookies to divide, the planning for a party that are all real live math. And it's especially tough to trust that those few minutes of real engaged figuring are worth 20 pages of worksheet practice.

—Joyce Fetteroll

"Can anyone explain to me "unschooling"?"

It's like "just say no."

Just say no to school years and school schedules and school expectations, school habits and fears and terminology. Just say no to separating the world into important and unimportant things, into separating knowledge into math, science, history and language arts, with music, art and "PE" set in their less important little places.

Most of unschooling has to happen inside the parents. They need to spend some time sorting out what is real from what is construct, and what occurs in nature from what only occurs in school (and then in the minds of those who were told school was real life, school was a kid's fulltime job, school was more important than anything, school would keep them from being ignorant, school would make them happy and rich and right).

It's what happens after all that school stuff is banished from your life.

—Sandra Dodd

More on what unschooling is and links for beginners

I didn't collect these myself, but years ago when the unschooling site of some friends was being abandoned, I grabbed this part up quick!