Unschooling Doesn’t Look Like School at All
First, let’s talk about how unschooling doesn’t look like school at all.
Unschooling looks like life.
It’s like an endlessly unfolding summer vacation, but with one big difference: the kids don’t spend it decompressing, burning off steam from months of strict schedules and the stress to perform. And they aren’t constantly complaining they are bored because someone isn’t telling them what to do. Instead, they are busily pursuing the things that interest them.
In contrast, what does learning look like at school? The vast majority of us parents went to school, so we understand that process quite well: there’s a curriculum that dictates what we learn; a teacher that tries to help us understand it; and a test that determines if we remember it. Repeat that loop over different subjects and many years. It is an exacting process designed to meet its goal: teaching large numbers of students a defined collection of information and skills, within a set number of years.
Let’s dig into some of the ways unschooling differs from school and why.
(1) No curriculum
Unschoolers don’t buy into the idea that everyone needs to know a generalized (and sometimes out-dated) set of skills and information by a certain age. Understanding that people are unique and will end up doing different things as adults, unschooling parents see it as more effective for their children to focus on learning the things that interest them. Those interesting things have a better chance than a generic curriculum of leading to the skills and information that will support their personal work and life as an adult. It’s what they like to do now and is likely a step on the path to what they will choose to do in the future. They follow their interests, their curiosity, instead of a curriculum.
What about that certain set of skills and knowledge that is needed to get along in society? Since unschooling kids are living and learning in the real world, interacting with people in their society as they grow up, they will encounter occasions where those basic skills and knowledge come in handy, and they will pick them up then.
(2) Supportive atmosphere
But not following a curriculum doesn’t mean that unschooling parents are doing nothing. Instead, you’ll be replacing it with a supportive learning environment. One based not on set objectives, but on your child’s interests. Instead of a teacher dispensing information and directing the children’s activities, unschooling parents are actively supporting their children as they follow their interests. The children’s goal isn’t learning. Rather, it’s doing what’s appealing to them. The really fascinating thing is that when living is the goal, learning is an incidental, yet wonderful and intense, process that happens along the way. *You* are the one who will see the learning, because you are the one looking for it—they are having fun and happen to be learning along the way. And in my experience, they are learning a lot!
Another way the atmosphere differs is that unschooling parents don’t believe children will actively avoid learning unless forced. My experience shows just the opposite! Children are interested in exploring the world around them. Just watch a toddler who has recently learned to walk! That doesn’t change as they get older, unless the adults in their lives take the enjoyment out of it by directing or forcing it.
(3) Focus on aspirations
Schools focus on teaching skills they believe students will need in the future. With unschooling, we pursue our interests and pick up the skills we need to accomplish our goals along the way—both kids and parents! The value isn’t in the skill; it’s in what you can do with it.
And the learning is much better from that perspective as well. Remember how often a teacher told you “you’ll need to know this when you’re older”? That’s not a particularly compelling reason. But when you have something you want to accomplish NOW? That’s when the skill or piece of information has significant meaning. There is a reason to do the work to understand the information or master the skill—you want to learn it so you can continue in pursuit of your goal. There’s also a much better chance you will remember it because it was of value and made a strong connection to your existing knowledge. That’s real learning—learning that is understood and remembered.
(4) Interact with people of all ages
Schools group students together by age—it’s the easiest way to deliver the curriculum sequentially. One downside is that the large number of students per teacher means there aren’t a lot of role models nearby; students learn a lot of their social skills from their age peers, who know as little as they do.
Instead of having their pool of potential friends and acquaintances limited to kids their own age that live in close proximity, unschooling children often have friends with a wide range of ages. But without that ready pool, how do unschoolers find friends? Through their interests. Karate. Building robots. Sports. Art. Video games. A shared interest is a much better basis for a developing friendship than age.
Having friends with a range of ages also gives children opportunities to nurture those that are younger or less experienced, to actively play with those with similar interests and skill levels, and to learn from those with more experience. Age is just not a defining factor outside the classroom.
(5) No vacation from learning
The learning is found in the living. Once your family is enmeshed in unschooling, it’s life. And there’s no need to take a vacation from life. Vacations are about exploring new places and experiencing fresh surroundings; not about escaping from obligations. When they were younger, my kids were regularly asked if they get the summer off and we just answered, “No, we’ll just keep doing what we’re doing.” It’s a pretty meaningless concept when life is like summer vacation.
And those are just five of the many ways that unschooling looks different than school!
What to Do Instead of School
Now let’s look more closely what to do instead of school.
Because NOT doing school is one thing, but what will you actually do all day??
A Season of Saturdays
To help get you in a more open and curious mindset (better for your learning!), try thinking of your days over the next while as a season of Saturdays. If you find yourself waking up and thinking, “It’s Monday, time to get back to work and learning,” try to catch yourself before you put that filter firmly in place: “Oops, I forgot, it’s Saturday!”
What would you do with your kids if it was Saturday? Weekends are typically a time to relax and follow the flow of the day rather than an imposed schedule. Would your kids enjoy sleeping in? What a wonderful part of the transition away from imposed schedules: sleeping as much as their bodies would like. Or are they early risers? Now they can savour the beauty of early morning without the pressure of getting dressed, fed, and out the door. Or are they a mishmash of both? Now they can learn about themselves, discovering their own unique patterns for sleep, figuring out how to better support their own needs.
Are there places you and your kids have always wanted to visit (or visit more often), assuming they’re opening up again. The museum? The science centre? The art gallery? Cool! But remember, you don’t need to lead your children through them, making sure they see all the exhibits. (If you’re tempted, take a moment to think about what it really means to “get your money’s worth”—is it quantity or quality?) Instead, follow their curiosity. Look at the map with them, chat about what they’d like to see and do, let them navigate you guys around—if they want to. If they are engaged and excited at a particular exhibit, let them stay as long as they want. (Hint: the best learning is happening there!) If you only hit three exhibits that day, great! It’s not a competition. If you breeze through them all in a couple of hours, that’s fine too! You hit breadth instead of depth. Both are perfectly appropriate: you are following their interests, seeing their minds in action. For me, the fun over time is in seeing how each visit is uniquely its own. And as I got to know my kids better, I started seeing connections between how a visit played out and the other things that were happening in their lives. It’s all connected. It’s all learning.
How about something a bit closer to home? What about playgrounds? Maybe explore a different one in your town each week. Hiking trails? You can go every week or two and see how things change with the seasons. Find the things that catch your children’s attention and follow up over time. Would they like to try bowling? Or laser tag? Or trampoline? The bonus is that family places are much less busy during the week—most of the kids are in school! We even scheduled our vacations in the off season: lower cost and less crowded.
If you live in the city, take trips beyond the suburbs and explore farms and parks. Take a horse-drawn carriage ride. Visit a pumpkin patch in October. If you live rurally, take trips into the city and explore the attractions. Walk the streets and admire the tall buildings. Take a subway ride. Explore the world around you, not just the one outside your door.
Tired yet? Haha! I have given you a pretty wide range of ideas to help kick start some conversations with your kids, and I’m sure you guys will come up with many more! It’s pretty unlikely that they are going to be interested in all of these things—and certainly not all at once. But don’t be stressed if your children aren’t interested in even a handful of them. We’re all uniquely ourselves—find out what your kids are interested in.
Meet Your Kids
That leads nicely into this really important piece of the deschooling journey: getting to know your children. Understanding them is the foundation from which you will explore the world together. What are they doing when you see their faces light up? What do they ask to do regularly? What new things would they like to try? What brings them joy? What engages them so completely that they don’t notice time passing? Do those things often.
Bring in related things you think they might also enjoy. If they like a certain show, would they like to do a puzzle depicting a scene from the show? You can make one! Or, if they like a certain movie, might they enjoy watching some behind the scenes footage? You don’t necessarily need to ask them, just let them know it exists and see if they are drawn to it. Just be careful that these are things you think THEY will enjoy, not things you wish they would enjoy. (Like that themed math workbook you were eyeing at the supermarket.) And if they aren’t drawn to something you give to or show them, don’t fret—you’ve just learned something new about them. Maybe your guess was off a bit for now, or maybe they were busy and it will catch their attention next week, or next month, or next year. Their world is still a bit bigger because now they know that such a thing exists.
And don’t forget about home—life can be fun and interesting there too! What do your children enjoy doing in their PJs? Board games? Card games? Twister? Red light, green light? Colouring books? Crafts? Puzzles? Building forts with couch cushions and blankets? Carving snow sculptures after the big storm? Playing catch? Hula hooping? Making their own playdoh? Slime? Goop? Kicking a ball around outside? Frisbee? Reading stories together? Playing hide and seek? Tent in the backyard? Watching movies? YouTube videos? Somersaults and handstands? Playing video games? Online games? Baking cookies? Acting out TV shows? How could I forget Lego and K’Nex and Duplo? The possibilities are vast.
Whatever they enjoy, do those things with them. Bring bits of the world to them that you think they’d find interesting.
Remember, it’s Saturday! Relax and enjoy your time together.
How Do You Learn?
I remember when my daughter’s preteen friends would comment to her about how boring her life must be without school. What do you think? Does it sound like life without school will inevitably be boring? I don’t think so!
As you dive into all this fun living (and learning!) with your family, don’t forget to take some time yourself to continue learning about unschooling. The challenge at this point is probably that you’re feeling overwhelmed! There is so much information coming from so many places:
- observing and engaging with your kids;
- contemplating memories dredged up from your school career;
- reading more and more about unschooling and parenting that supports that lifestyle;
- hanging out with like-minded people to see how they approach things;
- philosophical meanderings about how you want to live your life; and
- questioning, well, everything!
How are you going to connect it altogether to paint yourself a cohesive picture of unschooling?
Well, how do you like to learn?
Do you learn things more effectively through writing? Like to journal? You can pick out a beautiful notebook (or decorate one yourself if you feel so inclined) and fill it with observations and thoughts and ideas as your family moves through deschooling. Or maybe you’d like to create a blog, either a private one for your family’s eyes only, or a public one where you share the ups and downs of your journey with others.
Or do you like to process information more visually? Like taking pictures? You can create photo essays, grouping them through the threads you see in the images. Or maybe a photo blog if you would like to share with others.
Or do you lean toward verbal processing, enjoying conversations with others on the same journey? You can find local unschoolers and meet up to chat at park days or coffee nights, you can attend an unschooling conference or gathering (there are more and more of them!), or you might approach some unschoolers you’ve met online and see if they are interested in chatting by phone or skype.
Or maybe it’s an eclectic mix of all of these but figuring out how you like to learn is a worthwhile step in deschooling. It helps you discover the vast array of ways that people learn outside school, opening you up to all the ways you might support your children’s exploration and learning.
And that’s where the real fun of unschooling is.
All that said, don’t rush. The key right now is building strong relationships with your children. Getting to know them well. Being open and allowing them to better understand you as well. Try to consistently move forward towards unschooling, while being careful not to make so many changes in quick succession than your family loses its footing—you don’t want to pull the rug out from underneath them.
If you’ve just pulled your kids from school, or decided to stop pushing your school-at-home schedule, it’s likely that your priority right now will be exploring how they will learn without being told what to learn and how to learn it. For unschooling to work well in your family, you need to understand and become comfortable with how people learn outside school.
A tip: during this season of Saturdays, beyond not pulling out workbooks or sitting them in front of an online video lesson, be careful not to take a natural moment and turn it into a “lesson.”
Because it interrupts their brain, the way they are thinking and connecting pieces together in that moment and makes it about the way your brain is processing what’s happening. What they are getting out of a moment may be very different from what you are getting out of it. And that’s okay. Perfectly okay. So, instead of jumping in and risking taking over, focus on your children. Try to notice the clues they are giving you—often by observing what their next action or comment is, you can discover what they are taking in and focusing on. Figure what they are seeing and learning.
This is what I mean when I say “see through their eyes”—which I say pretty often. By doing this over and over and over you will begin to see how people learn without coercion and outside direction. Observe your children carefully. Not only will you begin to see unschooling learning in action, you will also get to know your children better. Lovely!
And remember, this process takes as long as it takes. Stop as soon as you catch yourself trying to direct their activities or trying to entice them into an hour a day of reading or writing in a journal. The key word here is “entice.” If you offer to read to them and they happily join you, great! If you think they really might enjoy a journal of their own to write or draw in, take them out to choose one, or surprise them by bringing one home the next time you go out. Deschooling is about discovering your motivations and expectations, and then being careful not to put them on your children; help them discover their own. It’s not the end of the world if you catch yourself slipping into the role of teacher—just stop, regroup, and start again. Observe instead of direct.
I promise, there is so much fun in the observation! Children are amazing learners when they are immersed in their interests and passions. And so are we.
One thing that can often trip up a parent during this season is how passionately a child can dive into an interest that has been restricted up to this point. Most often I see parents worry about “too much” YouTube or video games. The key here is that often, whatever the activity, it has been restricted. Once it is no longer restricted, there’s a very good chance they will take advantage and indulge to their heart’s content: and that may take some catching up!
Another consideration is that they may worry that this reprieve is only temporary and try to fill as many hours with it as possible in anticipation of losing that freedom when you eventually change your mind. Especially if you’ve been back and forth about it before. It will take time to build trust with them that this freedom won’t be revoked. As they begin to trust that they are free to choose to play or watch any time, and they fill up on what they felt they were missing while the activity was restricted, they will begin to feel safe and free to make other choices.
If you find yourself in this situation, maybe ask yourself some questions surrounding the issue. Would I be worried if their passion was reading? Or sports? Is it the time spent that concerns me the most? Might this be their life’s passion and they’re happily putting in their 10,000 hours? Might readers become writers? Gamers become programmers? Movie watchers become directors? Do I only feel comfortable if I think of this time as training for a career? What did you put many hours into as a child? Did it become your career? If not, was that time wasted? (I put countless hours over thirteen years into ballet yet I didn’t become a professional dancer in the end. Time wasted? No way. It was my window to learning about myself.) Are your children engaged and happy and challenged? Do they work hard to figure things out and progress? Even through frustration? Isn’t that pretty cool?
There’s also the possibility that this is their learning tool of choice for now and you won’t see their passion wane over time, maybe for a long time. But the great thing is, alongside their playing or watching, you’ll be spending lots of time with them, observing them, chatting with them, helping them explore their interest. So, if it doesn’t begin to fade with time, it’s very likely that you’ll get to a point where you’re comfortable with it as a learning tool. Anything can be a window to the world. And to learning about themselves.
As you examine your motivations, your expectations, your understanding of learning and living, it’s conceivable that you, and your children, will start to question the myriad of rules that surround us every day. And it can be tempting to quickly declare your family rules null and void. Please try to avoid that. I think there’s a good chance it would be akin to the abrupt removal of the rug underfoot I mentioned earlier. That won’t be fun either. It will likely be messier.
Yet hard and fast rules are better examined—at least once somebody balks. Dinner at 6pm? Bedtime at 9pm? Why? What purpose does it serve? Is there another way to accomplish that purpose? Talk about the rules, share your thoughts, listen intently and respectfully to theirs (in relaxed moments, not when the energy of power struggles is in the air).
One thing that might help is to shift your perspective from rules to routines. Let’s peek at bedtime. People get tired. Is the goal getting to sleep when tired? Might circumstances change day-to-day? Do they for you? Are you sometimes really tired at 8pm? Other nights not until 10pm? 12am? What would be different if you thought of bedtime as more of a routine to help your children get to sleep when they are tired, rather than a fixed rule regarding the time on the clock? Does it seem reasonable to you to help them listen to their bodies and follow its cues, rather than try to control their bodies based on outside factors? No matter your answers, it’s better to know what you think and act from that place rather than to blindly follow rules.
Another helpful aspect of thinking in terms of routines rather than rules is that for many kids (and adults too) there’s comfort in routines, in knowing what to expect. Routines help with transitions: a relaxing routine to get ready to go to bed when they’re tired; a routine to get ready to go out the door so things aren’t forgotten; a calming routine to move through frustration etc. It’s all about getting to know and understand your children. And yourself.
Be patient. Deschooling is a time of stretching and growing and analyzing and playing and learning and observing and exploring and being together with your family. It’s challenging and it’s beautiful. It’s work and it’s play. Remember to enjoy the moments.
Do Classes Hinder Deschooling?
I mentioned earlier about being careful not to take a natural moment and turn it into a “lesson.” I want to expand on that a bit. Deschooling around the ideas of lessons and classes, even outside of school, is valuable work for us to do.
I remember when my kids left school. I thought we were going to be busy doing all the things! And it turned out that they were not interested in anything that looked even remotely like school. So, there were no extra-curricular activities, no community recreational classes. They had so much lost time with their interests to make up for! And when they were interested in something, their preference was to dig into it themselves with our support.
Swimming classes? No thanks.
Workshops at the local Science Centre? Nope.
Summer library program? Nah.
I was a bit confused. What should I do now? The answer was (which I know now because hindsight is 20/20 and all that): deschool some more. Sure, those activities may be fun for many kids, but my kids were happily busy with their own stuff.
On the bright side? I didn’t push, I just offered and observed. And eventually I came to realize what I was doing: reaching for learning situations that, although they weren’t IN school, looked a lot LIKE school, because that was all I really knew. A-ha!!
My kids deschooled much faster than I did, so it was really helpful for me to watch them in action. I joined them in their activities, played games with them, read to them, watched TV and movies with them, went to local parks with them; in short, had fun with them. That was how I began to see that there were so many ways to learn things beyond the teacher-student paradigm. It was, and is, beautiful!
If they had taken me up on my offers of classes, or I had insisted, we all would have taken much longer to discover the learning that surrounds us every day and our natural ability to pursue it. Classes would have continued to be valued as a way of learning above other options. In other words, deschooling would have taken even longer.
I think that’s a crucial, and challenging, step in the deschooling process. Classes are so highly valued in our society that it can be an easy way for us, especially at first, to justify the success of our homeschooling adventure to others, as well as to ourselves: “They’re going to weekly swimming classes and attended a robot-building workshop last week. Three’s the overnight program at the zoo next week, and they signed up for hockey this winter!” That rollicking list might calm down Aunt Sally for the time being, but really, it clutters our vision and makes the real learning that happens through every day living harder to see.
How might you figure out if your child’s slate of activities is hurting deschooling more than it is helping? What really matters is the motivation behind them. Are we encouraging our child because we feel these activities are a “better” use of their time than hanging around at home playing? Are they actually excited to be there? Or do you get the impression they’re going to assuage their own fears that maybe they aren’t learning much on their own?
Motivations that stem from external judgements rather than internal interest are clues that some more deschooling is in order. Maybe they have a terrific time each week, yet you begin to realize that you’re latching onto it and giving it power beyond “they’re having fun.” That’s a sign for you to take the time to work through why that is, without spoiling their fun. If they aren’t having a great time, remind them that they don’t have to go and take a moment from time to time to unobtrusively point out the learning they’re doing outside the class.
The big question is, are you, like me in the beginning, offering up classes or lessons as your first response when your child says they are interested in something? That’s a major clue. Stop doing that. For now, challenge yourself to think of other ways to meet and expand their interests. And there ARE other ways. You might just need work a bit harder to find them right now. Deschooling. It’s worth it. It helps you see the bigger picture. It helps you discover the world of learning that is waiting outside the classroom.
Do they like the water? Take them public swimming regularly. Visit a nearby lake to play in the water. Rent a paddleboat. Float with life jackets. Blow bubbles in the water. Take a snorkel and mask in the bathtub. Set up the sprinkler to run through or a small wading pool. In short, help them enjoy the water. Over time, you’ll see them learning. From blowing bubbles, to putting their face in, to dunking their heads, to jumping off the side of the pool or dock—it’s beautiful to watch, and not a swimming lesson in sight. Maybe there will be eventually; maybe they’ll want to learn more formal swim strokes or water rescue techniques. But the point is, you’ll discover that there doesn’t “have to” be lessons.
Eventually both you and your kids will realize that classes and lessons and textbooks are just a few of the options on the huge learning platter of life and they will have no intrinsic value over and above any other offering. Their choices will be based on what they’re interested in and how they personally like to learn things. Not on anyone else’s expectations about their learning. And neither will yours! Because we’re all learning, all the time.
Another step on the deschooling journey.
Keep Learning About Unschooling
The last thing I want to touch on is, no matter where you are on your journey, I want to encourage you to keep learning about and exploring unschooling. We learn so much about unschooling and how it works while we’re actively deschooling, yet, in my experience, that learning is never “done.” As a parent, I am always learning: learning about myself and my children as we all change and grow, contemplating how our unschooling lifestyle flows and adapts to our growing experience; learning about new topics I or my children are curious about and exploring ways I can support and expand upon them. The philosophy of unschooling is consistent—yet its implementation looks different in every family, with every child, and over time.
If you have more than one child, have you discovered that your interactions are a bit different with each? Over time, how you interact becomes tailored to each child, to each friend, to your spouse or partner.
Beyond the different topics of conversation based on their individual interests, in what ways might your interactions with the people in your family differ?
- Do you use different vocabularies? (What words and phrases are unique to each of your relationships? Different topics from which to draw analogies and comparisons in conversation? More or less colourful language?)
- Are some more receptive to, and appreciative of, physical contact? (Are they a hugger? Not at all? Sometimes? Do they appreciate rough and tumble play?)
- Do some respond better to you initiating conversations more often than others (And conversely, with some do you wait more to respond to their prompts?)
- Do some like to be helped as soon as they hit a roadblock while others prefer to spend some time trying to figure things out for themselves?
As you grow to know and understand your children more deeply, you can adapt yourself to their learning and communication styles to better connect with them individually. It’s about building stronger relationships. And from stronger relationships comes deeper learning.
Why is that?
Because with a strong and supportive relationship your child is comfortable approaching you to talk about things—and vice versa. With a strong relationship they aren’t worried about being teased so they’ll ask that basic question about something: more learning. They aren’t worried about feeling judged so they’ll share their thoughts about a situation and talk through it with you: more learning. They aren’t worried about being punished as a result of their actions so they’ll come to you to analyze situations that went awry, or, if possible, before they go awry without worrying about being threatened with punishment: more learning.
With unschooling you want to support your children’s learning as seamlessly as possible so they stay in the flow: that’s where the best learning is. How you do that is unique to each child and may change over time. Keep learning. And don’t worry about how “life isn’t perfect, and they should learn that, so maybe I shouldn’t try to help so much.” Believe me, life isn’t perfect, and no matter how hard you try you won’t be able to make everything work out perfectly. Do your best. Show your love and support through your actions. Show, don’t tell.
And there’s another piece to this “don’t stop exploring unschooling” puzzle. Not only do we all grow and change over time as individuals, but each year they are a year older. Is that a bit too obvious? Probably, but I know I sometimes had to remind myself that even if I’d been unschooling for ten years, I’d never been the unschooling parent of a 15-year-old before, an 18-year-old. It is a different experience with each child because each child is different. The ways I connect with them are different, the ways I support their learning are different, the ways I help them process and analyze situations are different. As they get older some of the situations that arise are new to us as a family. I want to pay attention, always. To stay connected, to keep learning. About them and about myself.
Because, coming full circle, unschooling is life.
I hope you found this meander through why unschoolers choose to NOT go back to school and what we do instead helpful on your journey.
And I wish you a lovely day!