The myth of the uninvolved unschooler

The myth of the uninvolved unschooler
Jamie Martin, editor of Simple Homeschool also writes about motherhood at Steady Mom

I remember the first time I heard the term unschooling. I was standing on a street corner chatting with a homeschooling neighbor, who used the term.

“What’s that?” I asked.

While I can’t remember her exact definition, I remember my reaction–far from positive. It sounded to me as though unschooling parents ignored their children, not getting really involved in their education.

I knew it wasn’t for me since the idea of traditional homeschooling already freaked me out. But then an evolution occurred. And I now find myself parked most resolutely on the informal side of the homeschooling spectrum.

I’m not the type who likes being put into a box, so I don’t label myself or my family. We pull from a variety of influences in our homeschool–unschooling/interest-led learning, Waldorf, and leadership education predominantly. But basically, we just do what works and what best fits our needs.

Last year Jena wrote a post about the two foundational principles of unschooling–that children are born to learn, and that forced learning kills the desire to learn.

But what exactly do unschoolers do all day? That varies as much as individual families vary–in other words, a lot! But as I’ve come to know more unschoolers, it seems to me that we often have in common the following six focuses.

1. We focus on exposure, not mastery.

In my belief, the early years of life (up until age 12 or so) are about allowing my kids to fall in love with learning. I want them exposed to as much richness and depth as possible. Exposure to language, to words, to writing, to numbers, to art, to music.

But I’m not as concerned with the need to master this material according to an artificial timetable– believing instead that mastery will come later as the child’s development continues to progress and mature.

2. We focus on strengths and potential, not weaknesses.

Few adults have careers based on areas in which they struggled as kids. Typically the most satisfying careers are those with skills in which the person naturally excels and enjoys. Yet in our day-to-day homeschooling it seems so natural to focus on our kids’ weaknesses instead of their strengths. Why is that?

One day my children will, of course, need to know how to overcome their personal weaknesses. We set the foundation for that when it comes to the area of character development every day. But when it comes to academic achievement, these early years are about building confidence, not pointing out flaws or areas of struggle.

3. We focus on modeling.

At my kids’ current ages of 8, 7, and 6, I (along with my husband) am the most important influence in their lives. Just as toddlers follow us around wanting to “help” in any way possible, it’s only natural for a child to imitate what they see the adults in their life doing.

For that reason, I feel my writing career, the books I read, and the example I set to be one of the foundations of my kids’ learning. I’m not taking anything away from them by having my own life, instead I’m inspiring them to have their own.

My kids know what it means for their parents to have a mission in life, so they know it means they have one, too. Education is all about the process of discovering that mission and becoming equipped to achieve it.

4. We focus on relationships.

I completely agree with Renee when she wrote that all you need is love. One thing that unschoolers (and others, of course!) do really well is to focus on relationships. When love flows unconditionally, not based on whether or not you completed a worksheet correctly, the atmosphere is primed for learning.

I have always believed that nurturing is the greatest task I do as a teacher. For this reason cooking and baking with my kids have always been as important as math. When we nurture, defenses go down and everyone opens up to inspiration, ready to tackle new challenges.

5. We focus on time, not content.

Some unschoolers have a spontaneous lifestyle, where there are no set hours for anything and everything is up for negotiation. If that works and makes parents and children happy, I see no problem with it. But it isn’t the only way to embrace an interest-learning lifestyle.

Our home has a lot of structure because that’s what works for us; it’s what we need to have a peaceful home. My children know our daily rhythm well, and if you asked them what we do each day, they could quickly run down a litany of activities. But “school” wouldn’t be one of them.

Instead we structure time, not content. I make sure we have plenty of time planned in our day for learning opportunities and one-on-one time .

I may even have suggested activities that I think we could work on. But the final choice is up to my kids. I ask, “What do you want to work on today, and how can I help?” I serve as mentor, guide, and friend.

6. We focus on our conviction and faith in the path we’ve chosen.

It is faith and conviction that enables unschoolers to make choices that place us in the minority of the homeschooling minority. Courage to march to the beat of a completely different cultural drum, to step off the grade level path, challenging and pushing boundaries along the way.

I watch my children learn to read without formal lessons. I watch them learn to write and calculate numbers the same way. Not necessarily on my own timetable, but on their own. I listen to their declarations that they love books, they love math, that they can do and be anything.

I marvel at how they are made in God’s image, and that even this former perfectionist mama has learned to let go, to trust, and to watch each child blossom in their own perfect and lovely way.

It does a mother’s heart good–this releasing, this freedom, this struggle, this joy.

Uninvolved? Hardly.

Inspired? Completely.

How do you feel about the idea of informal, interest-led learning? What has your experience been?

This post originally published on March 26, 2012.

About Jamie Martin

Jamie is a mama to three cute kids born on three different continents. She is the co-founder and editor of Simple Homeschool, where she writes about mindful parenting, intentional education, and the joy found in a pile of books. Jamie is also the author of a handful of titles, including her newest release, Give Your Child the World.


  1. Jamie,
    I loved these ideas and was pleasantly surprised that at this moment and phase in life, I’m going through almost similar reflections – about letting go, letting the child be, giving him/her time and space to learn, explore, find his/her rhythm. And most importantly – giving unconditional LOVE.

    An year back, when I had conversations with some unschoolers here in India, the philosophy sounded baffling to me. I thought the same thing – “What do Unschoolers do all day?” and today after an year or so of unstructured/relaxed homeschooling, I can safely say, I resonate quite a bit with the unschooling philosophy of ‘letting go’. It didn’t come the easy way due to my own conditioning of regimen-style schooling and of growing up in a society that seeks to ‘control’ childhood. And, yet, I’m learning to just be and let my child be, too..
    I can see that I’m finding peace in this unlearning…

    And, I couldn’t have agreed more with you about “having your own life”. Without it, I would be miserable and claustrophobic and that’s hardly the kind of example I would like to set for my kid.

    Interestingly, I wrote my reflections on How Children Learn, Parenting and Life and shared similar perspective, including – YOU are the biggest influence on your child. You may read here:
    Rashmie @ Mommy Labs’s latest post: 32 Reflections on Children, Parenting and Your Life. Learning Societies UnConference – Part II

  2. Great thoughts on unschooling! I am very drawn to unschooling, of course my kids are still pretty young – almost 4 and 19 months – so we aren’t really into a strict routine of we must do x, y, and z everyday. I am extremely drawn to the literature based learning, like Sonlight. I love reading books, and love reading books to my kids. It is something I want them to love when they start reading too. But, in the same aspect, I can see us reading about something and my daughter asking about trains, and then we go to the library and get a bunch of books on trains, until she finds something else she is interested in. I love reading about the different styles of homeschooling, it really shows how individualized it can be, which is one of the many things I like about homeschooling 🙂
    Heather’s latest post: hanging laundry again!

    • Agreed, Heather! We started out with Sonlight as well, and still use many of their book selections, just on our own timetable–with plenty of room to jump ship and explore something new if we want to!

  3. We’re in our second year of homeschooling, and I’ve been surprised to find myself drifting more and more towards the unschooling camp. I thought stricter schedules and more defined curriculums were the way to go, but this is really working for our family.

    Unschooling suits my own personality much better, which makes for a happier mama and happier students!

    We’re still very rigid on math and grammer with our 1st and 3rd graders, but we’re drifting towards the informal side on everything else, and I love it. And so do my kids.

    THANK YOU for this piece of encouragement!
    Anne @ Modern Mrs Darcy’s latest post: Spending Your Way to Happiness (No, Really)

  4. Great post, it really made me think. We too are in a place right now where I feel like we’re being called to slow down and see where things take us. It is important to do what works for you, and I like that you said you still have structure in your house because you need it to have a peaceful household. So many people think you can’t do THAT and be an UNSCHOOLER. I like your phrase “What do you want to work on today and how can I help?” And if you don’t mind, I think I’m gonna steal it. 🙂
    Amy’s latest post: no note needed

  5. Great post! I always say I’m an unschooler in the summer especially. Even if you do formal schooling, it shouldn’t really take that long. There is plenty of time for any homeschooler to discover new things outside the time they might spend with workbooks or textbooks.

    I like how you said that you still have a rhythm to your day. Many people think that unschoolers have no order or structure to their day. Of course, love is the most important aspect no matter what method you use to instruct your children 🙂
    Heidi’s latest post: Online College Courses for High School

  6. It seems that most long-term homeschoolers tend to relax more and more as they continue teaching their children. I think that is because you learn to trust yourself and your children, and realize that in a learning atmosphere, learning is automatic, like breathing, you don’t have to force it. One thing I do like to do is maintain a list of the books that my children read through the year. It is amazing how many “educational” books they choose! My thirteen year old picks out the classic literature she would be assigned in high school for herself, because she loves good books.
    Jen @ anothergranolamom’s latest post: March Marathon Training — Relay Style

    • I track books we’re read too – using LibraryThing, recommended by my librarian. Very easy to look up books and add to your list!

  7. I like this list! Definitely print-worthy for the homeschooling notebook. It will serve as a good reminder to stay the course with what is important. Sometimes I wander off the path.
    Pam’s latest post: Homeschool Convention Recap Part 2

  8. My daughter is only 3 and my son is 4 months old, but it looks to me like we’re drifting in the unschooling direction. As is right now, there is so much our daughter learned without any formal instruction, it’s amazing. She knows the alphabet for two languages, she has amazing memory that I could only dream of, more and more I realize she learns more when I just let her instead of force her. She comes to me on her own asking to explain things. I love it! It is so amazing to see her grow! Now… Not sure how this will fly with my in-laws or my dad, thankfully my mom is on-board 🙂
    Anastasia @ eco-babyz’s latest post: 2012 in 2012: Week 12

  9. We focus on relationships. Yes! That was probably the number 1 motivation in our journey toward unschooling.
    Jessica’s latest post: Social Media Burn Out is Okay.

  10. This is EXACTLY what I want for our homeschooling journey! My boys are 7 and 3, and we’ve tried a variety of methods over the past couple of years. No matter what we try, I always end up convinced that the only true education is one you achieve yourself. And Yeats’ notion about education being more about lighting a fire than filling a bucket is very inspiring to me. However, I’m really struggling with reporting and keeping records and such – we’re in a place where the gov’t requires this of us (NS, CANADA) and I just don’t know what to do! I’d love to hear from anyone in a similar situation – thanks!
    Joy’s latest post: The Race

    • I’m not in that situation, Joy, but I know that it is challenging. I would find out exactly what is required of you and then get flexible about how you meet those requirements. Yes, there may be certain things you have to cover, but you could still do the minimum on those and have plenty of free time leftover.

      • I’m not in the same situation either, but maybe find out the requirements and then let the children decide how to meet the requirements? For example letting them decide the order you cover topics or the projects that you do to cover them. You can offer a few ideas to the kids and let them make the final choice. This way you are doing what you have to, but giving the control to the kids so they have more ownership in the learning.

      • This is the first time I’ve homeschooled in a high reporting state, and I am freaking out more than a bit–I totally understand your struggle, Joy! However, I’ve connected with seasoned homeschoolers in the area who have helped me navigate the reporting aspects, and I am slowly, slowly calming down. Do you have a homeschooling group nearby?
        Fran’s latest post: Distracted Driving

  11. Absolutely beautiful and inspiring!
    Jenn’s latest post: Beautiful week- a collage:)

  12. Thank you for sharing your story. Before now, I have only heard about unschooling involving children with very severe learning difficulties, for whom the typical, mainstream working adult life may not be an option, so it is very interesting to hear from a different perspective.

    I was wondering how you address the possibility that any of your children might want to be a doctor, lawyer, or other job that requires a college degree. Is college an option with unschooling? So many of these things seem to require “written proof” of academic accomplishments.

    Please excuse my ignorance – I am new to the subject and am reading voraciously to try and find out more!
    Becca’s latest post: 20 Miles

    • I fully expect all my kids to go to college if they choose that and need that to fulfill their mission in life. So yes, it very much is an option!

    • We are unschoolers and my eldest is 21. She is currently in nursing school set to graduate in May. Going to college in an option for unschoolers, now my eldest son is graduating high school in June and will not go to college full time. However he will and is taking a few buisness managment courses at the community college while working full time for a construction company.(he works part time now) He wants to own his own construction company one day. I also have a somphmore in high school and a 8th grader. There plans are not set yet though my younger daughter wants to be able to homeschool her own kids someday and still be sucessful.

  13. “But I’m not as concerned with the need to master this material according to an artificial timetable– believing instead that mastery will come later as the child’s development continues to progress and mature.”

    LOVE! I have only been homeschooling two years and I have discovered this with my girls. It feels so nice to read that someone else agrees:)

    Have a great day!!
    Kimberley Byrd’s latest post: Our no good, very bad day

  14. I agree with a previous comment that homeschoolers tend to relax more as they go along. We are finishing up our 9th year and I have “let go” more this year than ever. To finish out this school term, I have decided to do “subject” days. Focus on Math one day, Science another, etc. Just play and have fun. Do all those things that we have wanted to do but did not have time with a traditional schedule and curriculum. Next year my 8th and 10th graders will be at a private school. I will have three boys ages 10,8, and 7 at home. If this new schedule works out well for us then we will continue on next year. I find myself leaning more towards unschooling as each day goes by. Thanks so much for this article and explaining what unschooling can be.

  15. Thank you so so much for sharing your musings on unschooling. I often feel like we’re the only family on this island, so reading your thoughts serves as fuel for my days.
    There are moments when I think we’re crazy for living so unconventionally…but there are more moments where I can’t imagine doing anything else.
    We have chosen to grow together as a family, watch our kids become friends, learn organically at our own pace, and find adventure in every day!
    While I appreciate all of the homeschool resources, it’s the posts about unschooling that offer the most encouragement…so thank you thank you!

  16. I really loved this article. It explains so well the way we homeschool too! Unschooling is so far from “not schooling” – it is rich and full and requires strong and engaged, present parents.

  17. I was raised unschooled with my siblings before it was a term. My mom just followed her instinct and our lead and that’s where we ended up. Now us four unschooled… 2 own their own successful businesses, one is working a mechanical engineering PhD, and I am happily unschooling my own little people and writing. All four of us are happy, creative, well-socialized individuals. Additionally, we are all very close. When we live with in driving distance we have dinner together almost weekly. And, because of the way we learned to learn, we are really enthusiastic about what one another are interested and exploring. My brother may be into scuba diving
    – something I wouldn’t explore on my own – but because we are all life-long-learners, we all get into learning what he is doing and why he is fascinating ated by it. I attribute most of that to our u schooling background.
    Taylor’s latest post: A Co-Sleeping Family

  18. Jamie, I especially appreciate your notion of structuring time, not content. I know you realize that this is something that I value as well, because you’ve linked to my blog post about it! I sometimes wonder whether all unschoolers would considered structured learning time as a very unschool-y way to learn, but it works great for us. Structuring in that time together for digging deep has always gotten my kids’ creative juices going. Thanks for sharing the insight!
    patricia’s latest post: connections

  19. When I first started researching educational options, I read some really extreme ideas by folks who claimed they were “unschooling.” More like “unparenting,” these books advocated not making their kids bathe and not “imposing their moral right and wrong on their kids.” It really turned me off of the idea of unschooling.

    Life has kind of forced us into an unschooling experiment this semester, and I must say I like it. Since January we followed my husband’s military career into a cross country move. We are currently living in a one bedroom motel room and we had to leave our home school textbooks behind in storage. For sanity’s sake I take my 5 and 7 year old daughters and newborn son to the library every day all morning. The time is structured (we are in the library for 4 hours a day) but the learning isn’t (we do bible together before we leave, but what we do at the library is up to the girls.)

    • Goodness, Cara! A one bedroom motel room? Totally amazed at your resourcefulness to make structuring time, not content, work out while in such tight quarters!

  20. I am glad I read this. We went from public school to online school and are now wanting to do homeschool… but mostly unschool. I have 5 children (16,14,13,10,7) When they were younger, they loved to learn. Now, they are forced to “learn” things they don’t care about, and in turn are struggling in school. My youngest, who has never been in a B&M school, has learned faster than the others. It isn’t because he is smarter, it’s because we have been very relaxed and let him learn at his own pace. I want this for my older children who have their interests. My oldest likes science, but struggles in Language Arts (but loves reading). My daughter loves language arts, reading, writing, but struggles with history and science. I know that they aren’t going to go to school and then get a job in those areas that they struggle in! So this year, we are going to change things. I want my kids to thrive and enjoy learning, and that doesn’t involve listening to a lecture that they are going to absorb about 2% of or to read it in a text book or to be sitting in front of a computer for 6-9 hours a day. I am so excited that I looked into unschooling!

  21. We have always schooled our oldest child this way, but now that he is 13 I have found that I tend to fear that not doing something more structured in content will hurt him during the high school years if he wants to go to college. There are so many blogs out there for homeschooling in a relaxed way with younger ones, but can you point me to some blogs that speak more to the middle school and high school years as far as being relaxed/delight-directed, etc?
    Aimee’s latest post: right now

    • Hi Aimee. I can understand what you’re saying. Jena, who used to be a contributor here, unschooled her three kids all the way through high school very successfully. (Two are doing well in college and one is doing well in a traditional high school.) She no longer keeps her private blog open, but you can read all the posts she wrote here:

      I also think that Thomas Jefferson Education is a great option for crossing the bridge from informal to slightly more formal (though still mostly interest-based) learning. You can read about that here:

      Hope that helps!

  22. You rocked it out of the park with this one Jamie.

    You know what my experience has been. Much the same but a teensy bit more mama-led instruction.
    Renee’s latest post: The Weekend Edition ~ Comes to an End

  23. I started homeschooling using a rigid curriculum style. Now my pendulum has shifted and I’m very interested in child-directed/interest-led learning. I’ve read a couple of books and sites but I’m still left with more questions than answers. Perhaps that’s normal? I agree with your post – more than anything I want my children to love learning and to never stop learning. Yet many days, I’m not sure how or where to start accomplishing this.
    Carrie’s latest post: A New Writing Age

  24. Thanks for this!
    We are very much “school at home” right now, but the more I realize how much my son learns outside the “classroom”, the more I wonder about unschool.

    I love your 6 focuses.

  25. I was reading Vanity Fair the other day, and was very interested to see this synopsis of a governess’s “unschooling” approach to learning:

    “With the young people, whose applause she thoroughly gained, her method was pretty simple. She did not pester their young brains with too much learning, but, on the contrary, let them have their own way in regard to educating themselves; for what instruction is more effectual than self-instruction? The eldest was rather fond of books, and as there was in the old library at Queen’s Crawley a considerable provision of works of light literature of the last century, both in the French and English languages … and as nobody ever troubled the bookshelves but herself, Rebecca was enabled agreeably, and, as it were, in playing, to impart a great deal of instruction to Miss Rose Crawley.”

  26. Hi Jamie! What’s surprising to me is that while I tend to fall into the relaxed classical camp (though I hate boxes and labels, too), we find ourselves doing much of these same six points throughout our days that you’ve beautifully written here.

    I wonder as homeschooling becomes more and more popular (and therefore a teensy bit more mainstream) that all these labels and philosophies and camps will become slightly more blurred? Because while I don’t really feel comfortable in the unschooling camp, I’m pleasantly surprised to find how freeing and flexible our classical approach has been, and how well that fits us as a family.

    Great post!

  27. I love this post! I am a school teacher by trade and when my 3 year old twins suddenly had an interest (pretty much begged) me to learn letters I was ready to go. Papers out, pencils sharpened, and the kids said “Not now Mommy, I’m too busy.” ….. a few days later we were building with their wooden blocks and suddenly they were both reciting the letters on the blocks as they stacked them! A few months later they started asking what letter their favorite words started with. Now, the day before they turn 4, they are not only recognizing all upper and lower case letters, but most of the letter sounds as well and we have yet to use those pencils I sharpened a year ago!

  28. This is one of the best posts I’ve read here! Very inspiring.
    I have been trying to loosen up more. I love the idea of unschooling and certainly we learn a lot that way naturally, but I still have a few curriculums I draw from for reading, math and inspiring extras. My eldest is almost seven, so we are still figuring it all out over here.
    My question to you is; You have mentioned having oak meadow as a resource. That is one of our resources as well, and I’m wondering if/how you bring those lessons to your children without it being forced?
    Thanks for all that you do here!

    • Yes, Gwynyth, we do use Oak Meadow (currently 1st grade), but in a very loose way. I love the stories and I draw the pictures myself, or any of the other “assignments” that are given. I do them and show the kids my work, tell them about it, read the story, etc. Then I make sure to leave the materials out so that if they are inspired they can do a crayon drawing, or something else.

      I also look at the weekly lesson plan and figure out which parts of it sound like things I want/need to do. Then as our week goes along, I’ll be on the lookout for times when I can mention/bring up a topic. Oak Meadow really encourages this, if you read their introductory materials to the teacher, which is one aspect I really appreciate about their approach.

      Hope that helps!

      • Thanks Jamie!
        Yes, that is very helpful. I remember reading that in the guides too, it’s been awhile though, (we are also using grade 1, but I purchased that and kindergarten a few years back ) so a good reminder to go through those again! My ideal would be to bring concepts to my kids in the informal way you have described, but first I need to learn to relax in the control department ; )

  29. Fantastic post!! As an unschooler, I have struggled with many of the “observations” that the outside world makes on us. This by far is the best post I’ve read on the subject yet. Thank you for taking the time to write it, and putting a voice to those who choose to do things differently.

  30. We homeschooled for 8 years, beginning back in 1998. One of the first questions I pondered was “What curriculum am I going to use?” I very quickly learned that I was not a textbook person and did not want to tie my children’s learning to textbooks. We did continue to use a modge podge of textbooks through the years, but only as a small part of our education. Their classroom was the world, and learning how to learn and explore.
    Bernice @ The Stressed Mom’s latest post: Where did the day go!?

  31. Awesome post! We have drifted from traditional homeschooling to relaxed Charlotte Mason. Now we have been unschooling for 1 1/2 years and it is just as amazing as you describe it.


  32. We’ve moved from traditional unschooling, to a fully aligned program, and then back to a blended program but my heart is in unschooling. Next year I will let go of funding benefits and get to what I beleive in. i might have to revist this post so that I can be reminded of the whys and hows of unschooling. It truly is amazing and it truly does work. I think I needed to follow ciriculumn to ge tot where I understood why it does not work – for my family, that it.
    Thanks for the post!
    Nicole’s latest post: Learning Through Snowboarding

  33. Hi, Jamie.
    This is my second year unschooling my children. I have 3 gorgeous little sponges. (7, 4 and 3)
    I often wonder, “Am I doing this right?” or “Am I doing enough?” “Maybe I need to schedule more and go-with-the-flow less…”

    I do have moments of clarity when I am positive I am doing the right thing. I’m having a hard time “letting go”. Since I came from a public schooled background, I can’t help but get that nagging, “You are ruining your kids because they don’t have a set curriculum or time table to focus on” feeling. I’m sure all publicly educated unschoolers feel this from time to time.

    All that to say, thanks for this article. I have gleaned a little more peace of mind from it.
    Cay’s latest post: D.I.Y. Silk Screened T-Shirts

  34. Interest-led learning is the way we all learn best. When we are interested and care about what we are learning, we remember it and come to truly understand it. I’m so grateful I can live and learn this way with my kids every day. If you came to our house on a Saturday and then on a Tuesday, you really wouldn’t know which day was which. We learn just as much any day of the week and hour of the day. We don’t place learning math on any higher plane than we do planting a garden or watching a movie. I like how you talked about exposure and not mastery. That’s why I stive to do…bring as much of the world as I can to my kids and then see what types of things they gravitate towars.
    Christina @ Interest-Led Learning’s latest post: How to Keep An Interest-Led Learning Home & a Clean House at the Same Time

  35. I love this. I unschooled my oldest until she decided to try public school half way through 4th grade. I thought school might only be temporary but she has been there a year and a half now and loves it. She had no trouble at all with the adjustment or the work. I now have a 5 year old and a 9 year old at home. My nine year old is dyslexic. I have been doing less unschooling with him because he is reading at about a kindergarten level. I wish there was more information out there about unschooling a child with a learning disability. For several years, I kept thinking he would want to learn to read but he has no interest. All the “experts” tell me I need to push him harder. We do spent most of our days focusing on his strengths and following his interests but it is SO different to unschool a child with special needs. My daughters love to read and spent much of their lives reading. Reading opens up a whole new world. I’m not confident enough that my son would catch up and not ever learn to read well without traditional tutoring.

  36. Loved this article! My wife sent it to me and made me read it 😉 We unschool our three kids (10, 8, 5) – and it is terrifying and awesome at the same time – coming from two traditionally schooled parents. This past fall we took the kids on a two-month road trip from the midwest out to California and through the southwest. It was amazing – and I was so grateful for the flexibility of our schedule to make it happen. Our three kids are all so different – so I am glad they have the ability to learn in their own way. I believe the child is born complete – and like Michelangelo sculpting David – we just help let them carve away the unnecessary waste 🙂 I am also a professional improvisor – so I am helping them live their \”yes and\” – which is natural in all of us. Plus, I have committed my life to helping people live their own purpose – their own YES…and developed some programs to help: Thanks again for this wonderful article!!! Travis
    Travis’s latest post: A Moment of YES: January 1, 2013

  37. This is great and reflects our learning, even through we are not unschoolers, the only exception to the points you describe, is that I do bring content. With homeschooling there is so much for time for exploring interests deeply that the opposite is true for us and I suspect most homeschoolers, I have to filter out and sift through all the possibilities and opportunities for learning and exploring because there is so much for homeschoolers to take up because we do have the spaciousness of time.
    Lisa’s latest post: Winter Play on Mother Nature’s Playground

  38. Lovely article. I wish we did more interest base learning. My son (age 6 ) however would rather, have work sheets and projects with a begin and end. But, that doesn’t mean we are totally structured in our school. Their is plenty of time for play and learning outside of what we call school, and that is the time I put most of our focus on. Our biggest priority during our “school” time is to work on reading. The way I figure it, if he can read there will be no limit to what he can learn. We also spend time daily in the Word. and of course reading lots and lots. But outside of school we practice walking out our faith, applying what we have learned, researching new things, and of course play. I hope that they are learning to love learning.
    Rita’s latest post: Wheat Belly…litterally

  39. Hi,

    I had a question, I currently homeschool 4 of my 6 children ( ages:11-2). I do try to get to the “classroom” everyday to do as much school as possible. Most days it’s a complete struggle for me because there is always so much housework to be done, cooking, keeping the kitchen “at bay”, clothes to wear for that day, baths etc. I find I am just barely doing school. I do the typical math, reading, spelling, writing and a little history/science for my younger 2, but then my older 2 I have them enrolled in an online program which is a long day. My question is, because I love the idea of free learning is how do you do it- I feel like I am not doing school if I don’t get to the classroom to do math. When you say structured time not content, does that mean do school everyday but let the kids decide on what they want to learn for that day? I
    Am sorry if this sounds dumb, and its hard to express what I am trying to say in this type of manner but I am just am trying to get a handle on what exactly does the free learning style mean. Just the idea alone takes pressure off me. Would appreciate any insight, thank you so much!

  40. Oh boy, I loved this so much. Thank you for saying it so well.
    Rachel @ 6512 and growing’s latest post: the salve you gotta have

  41. Wonderful post! We are unschoolers here with three boys ages 7, 5 and 3! I shared this post on my local FB homeschoolers group. 🙂

  42. I love this post. After reading it I will have to start calling myself an Unschooling afterschooler. Unlike a lot of afterschoolers I don’t use a rigid curriculum or make my daughter do extra worksheets.

    We do follow a structure of doing afterschooling everyday but we focus on her interests at the moment and areas that I feel she is not exposed to enough at school. Mostly music, art, sewing, etc…

    I especially LOVE what you said about following your own interests and having your own life! So many times Mom’s are made to feel guilty if we take anytime for our own self fulfillment. But it is necessary for their development and our own mental health.

    I will have to delve more deeply into my thoughts on being an unschooling afterschooler. It would make a great topic since I don’t believe I am the only one.

    Thanks again for such great ideas and writing!!

  43. Elizabeth Johnsen says:

    I love this!!! It is so how I feel about our homeschooling/unschooling journey! 🙂
    I was like you in that I had a negative reaction to it when I first heard about unschooling! I thought I’d be a rigid bookwork person, but as our first year unfolded last year I soon realized that that was not going to work for our daughter or for me! I am finding so much freedom (almost no guilt feelings now!) and our children are happy and content! I’m looking forward to exploring our world together more and more as our youngest becomes more independent (currently 21 months).
    This post was so fun to read..and so well put! I will enjoy sharing it with other homeschoolers and unschoolers I know.
    Thank you for the encouragement of your blog….I’m loving following it!!
    Bless you and yours!
    Elizabeth from New Zealand

  44. What a beautiful description. I know I’m not an unschooler, but I see the value in all these things. Our difficulty has been that I need lesson numbers and checklists to really accomplish something. I’m driven by externals (sadly) and have needed to set that up so I do a good job. We generally have followed a CM/Classical approach. I do have a thought:

    – focusing primarily on strengths wouldn’t have been a good plan for us. With kids with dyslexia, they absolutely need a very consistent focus on good reading/spelling skills. Reading is nonnegotiable if at all possible. But additionally, we’ve tried to make a lot of time for helping strengths because that is so necessary for the future and for self-esteem. In theory, we don’t really work in our area of weakness. However, I spent some good chunks of elementary/middle/high school not enjoying math/struggling with math. If I were to have a career now … I would totally go for being a math teacher. I just can’t limit my kids by today’s weaknesses.

  45. Two years ago I would have said unschooling was a ridiculous idea. Two years ago both of my children at home were in public school. After the second year of homeschooling my 11 year old son I am much more flexible in my ideas. I am getting away from the idea that school has to be “school”. And leaning more toward the idea that yes we need the basics but it isn’t nearly so important to have all of it stored in your brain. The ability to have enough exposure to something that you know where to look to find the answer makes much more sense. Who know what we may be doing next year.

  46. Leigh Ann says:

    Love, love, love, love!!!! We are new to this journey. Post like this help me breath and call my fearful heart. Faith, not fear.

  47. I read this last year and I loved it again this year! This is exactly how I want homeschooling to look in my house. I haven’t quite managed it yet. My son will be five in August, so I feel like it’s ok that all we do is play. I would love to set up some sort of routine but my child resists that more than I’ve ever seen anyone resist anything. He resists anything if he sees that it’s my goal! I can see that it will be a struggle for me, former high school English teacher and current piano teacher, to be less “teacher-y” and go with the flow instead. I desperately need help figuring out how to have enough of a routine that he doesn’t end up wanting to play games on the iPad all day long!
    Lisa J.’s latest post: Why the Bean is a Preschool Dropout

  48. This was really helpful to read, as we took a long break midyear from any ‘school’ while packing, cleaning, moving across the country, and unpacking for about 6 weeks. We’re just settling in here (the start of our 6th week) and although there has been consistent storytime through that time, that was the only thing that ‘looked like school’, but the kids loved it. As we’re starting to try to find a routine (weekly and daily), I’m finding it really hard to go back to the structure we had. All this to say, I am one who really tends to swing the pendulum on going towards structure (like, 1-2 hours per day in the morning) and my kids aren’t. It has been really hard to find any sort of combination that we’re all happy with. I think these points helped me realize I AM doing these things, it just feels soooo ‘unlike school’, even though we have the freedom to do anything we like. I am going to remember “Exposure, Not Mastery” as that is where we are right now.

    Sarah M
    Sarah M’s latest post: homeschooling across the country, and how my niche comes easier, now

  49. Excellent article! After over a decade of homeschooling, I would say the “informal, interest led learning” was how my kids REALLY learned even when I did try to make it more formal. Thank goodness it didn’t work! I had 5 children under 8 and then a sixth who was a preemie. I just couldn’t keep up with all my ambitious structure, but the kids learned, because we valued them and learning! The three who have graduated are VERY successful in their areas of interest. One fulfilled his dream of attending a service academy and will be graduating this May with honors. Another got a perfect verbal score on the SAT twice and is pursuing a career in philosophy and writing. The third is a busy model, actress, and singer/songwriter. I don’t share that to boast, but to say that according to the culture’s paradigm of what it takes to successfully educate, my kids should all be “failures”. Instead, they are evidence of what you’re writing about. Now the three still home are benefiting from this momma’s “revelation” and trust in the amazing capacity God has put in our children to follow their interests and become all He has intended them to be! We are a family, not a school. And family is more than sufficient!
    Kim Hyland’s latest post: Winsome

  50. Jamie,

    I loved your post, as usual. I specifically loved the structure you put as to why we unschool (I prefer the term life learn).

    I think of the richness I would have missed out on if I hadn’t let my 8 year old son follow his passion for ancient Egypt last year (here he learned a lot of science, math, sociology, spelling in addition to history) or for superheroes which led to an in-depth study of Norse and Greek mythology this year. We too use Oak Meadow as a resource but I find myself going to that less and less as I get less fearful about what my kids will learn and by when. But Oak Meadow is such that we can just incorporate suggestions into our “life learning” day.

    I also thought you were right on when you stated that adults tend to follow careers that use their strengths, not weaknesses. And just think about how we help kids with their self-esteem when we allow them to build on strengths.

  51. Jamie,
    Hi, I have been reading your blog for some time now and really enjoy it.
    I have been doing a lot of research lately and planning for my boys for next year trying to figure out what course and style we will be taking, this post was helpful to know that other moms are out there doing similar things. I have noticed that Oak Meadow is 1 of your sponsors and I have looked into using them, do you still use there curriculum and what do you really think?
    Thank you

  52. Yes, yes, yes! I love this list! One of the hardest hurdles for me to get over when I started unschooling was overcoming the idea that “not doing schoolwork” equaled laziness on my part as a parent. When I realized those principles you listed, I was convinced! Unschooling works for us as a family!
    Aadel’s latest post: Crochet Baby Set – Cherry Crush

  53. Hi Jamie! I just found your blog and am enjoying your writing! I’m finding myself naturally heading in this direction with my daughters (5 and 2). It’s (homeschooling or unschooling) is really a philosophy so deeply rooted in core values that can’t be ‘taught’ but like you said are better demonstrated or modelled or practiced. The more I’m learning the more I like it.

  54. We follow the informal and interest led learning at our home. Until about 2 months ago, we didn’t have a schedule at all. Like you, we weren’t concerned with mastery but with providing an environment of exploratory learning. But then my 2 youngest began requiring more time of me and I saw the opportunity to begin working with my 2 oldest more closely. So now, we have a more structured scheduled learning time, but it really doesn’t have a time slot. We began after breakfast that happens when everyone is up, which is different every morning. 3 days a week, I work with the 2 oldest and the 2 youngest “play”. The other 2 days of week, I work with the 2 youngest (games, phonics, reading ) and the 2 oldest do independent work (writing, reading, math books, tying lessons). We also do our devotionals and reading aloud. Sometimes we do that first, sometimes after lunch. It really varies to how we are feeling and how the day is going. Sometimes, we ditch everything and go grocery shopping together at 11 am. Sometimes, we ditch everything and go play at the park for a couple of hours. Sometimes, we ditch everything and watch TV and Mom reads all day. So, you see, we don’t have a schedule. It’s more like a plan. I see my kids blossoming and we tweak as we go. 🙂 For more on how that turns out, check my monthly learning log that I post at the beginning of each month.
    tereza crump aka mytreasuredcreations’s latest post: Give Away Friday: Teach Them to Your Children

  55. We sort of unschool I guess. I have 4 kids Elizabeth(13),James(7),Mathew(7), and Luke(5). Each day they have certin things they must do like bible,math, reading, writing, and spelling (for the boys). We use workboxes for most of this. In the afternoons the boys do either a science or social studies(we alternate days) lesson.(we choose a topic each month. After that they are free to explore. Elizabeth does her science(Apoligia’s General Science) and then contuines her history project on Women’s Sufferage(a semester project). Then she is free to play. A fellow homeschooling mom said we are not unschoolers as we use curriculum but i believe otherwise as the kids get time to do what they wish(within reason) during school after the basics are done.

  56. “For this reason cooking and baking with my kids have always been as important as math.” This made me smile. Cooking and baking are math! I can’t think of a better place to teach math to little ones than in the kitchen 🙂

    My oldest just turned 3 and as I watch him learn to read I am more and more convinced that there is a natural progression to learning that does not require sitting at a desk – although it does require answering LOTS of questions! I just found your blog and will have to keep tabs on it as we get closer to school-age.

  57. I took a week off of school this week. I sat down and decided that the approach I had been using up until this point wasn’t working. The kids dreaded school. I dreaded it. And I just couldn’t see myself doing it. I wish I had understood unschooling better a long time ago. I started homeschooling my oldest in 2nd grade. She’s in 9th now. I couldn’t figure out what was missing for that many years, but I kept with it. Its not that I never let my kids learn on their own or we never did things that they wanted to do, but this sitting around a table learning from only books is for the birds! Today I told the kids I was done with curriculum. So we sat at the computer and learned about how cars were made, why people in England drive on the left side of the road (interesting!!), how to install a car horn (my son’s favorite), how legos are made, and now they are interested in Lego robotics and wanting to learn that (if mom can afford one of those babies). All in an hour of my day. No we didn’t sit down and learn fractions or write poetry, but we had fun. When I told my husband, he wasn’t too thrilled. But after a conversation, he was more keen on it. If only I could convince him I don’t need to force feed math and writing–we’d be all set.

  58. I was homeschooled pretty traditionally. Now as I am homeschooling my oldest son I have be moving more to the unschooling side of things. He is very bright and active and traditional just isn’t the best fit for him. We’re enjoying exploring his interests more and more.

  59. I’ve been reading your blog for a while now and I enjoy it. So many great ideas. Now just to implement. 🙂 I started homeschooling my 9 year old this past fall. I also have an almost 3 year old at home.. We started with Calvert curriculum but that didn’t work for us. So now we use teaching textbooks for math and everything else is “unschooled”. I still have my days where I feel like is my child learning ? But then days when my son decides to go out to the back lake to fish on his own I feel proud he’s interested in something. But how do I build on that? When you say that you ask your kids what do they want to learn today… how does that work. Because my son would play mine craft all day if he could and learn about mods. How do I get him to pick a subjeft and then what do we do?

    • Minecraft. It drives me crazy because it is all my daughter wants to read/watch/do. She has autism and struggles to “fit in” with peers. We went to a party the other day with lots of children. Usually Mary is on the outside of that little circle, watching and flapping from her own little world. Not this time. They had an Xbox with minecraft. All the kids were amazed at how much Mary could do. So, I guess I don’t mind as much. She is learning important skills even with the dreaded minecraft. Lol

      • Apple Lewman says:

        My son is also obsessed with Minecraft, he is on the spectrum. I have experienced the same situation. I loved this post because we are not alone!

  60. I have been loving the thought of unschooling, but struggling with how to teach history. I myself never learned much at all in history class, and I’d like my kids to know more. But I feel like, left to their own devices, they play all day. My kids are 7 and 9, girls.

    • My girls are also 7 and 9 and my son is 5. History is my favorite thing to “teach”, even though my history education was terrible too! It is so much fun to relearn it along with the kids! I love Usborne’s Internet linked Encyclopedia of World History. That’s the only book I’ve purchased and all others come from the library. We just moved to Hawaii so we are about to embark on a Hawaiian history adventure, using library books and museums here. One of my daughters wants to learn about Cleopatra too, so I’ll be getting some Egypt books. Usually one person’s enthusiasm sparks the interest of the rest of us 🙂

    • If you want a conversational history curriculum, try Story of the World. My son loves them, and so do I! They start at the very beginning of ancient history, cover all different societies at the time, and progress all the way to modern times, through four books. His favourite was the history of ancient Egypt, and all of my kids talked of nothing but mummies and King Tut fir months! We are currently moving on from the Napoleonic wars, which I really enjoyed. We don’t use the workbook (but it has lots of fun coloring pages), but we take turns reading aloud, which I feel is important. Him hearing me read gives him a model, and he in turn has become very comfortable and proficient reading aloud. I felt this was important since it was something I struggled to do for a long time, and is a very useful skill.

    • My children wanted to learn about US History. So I (being a methodical person) check out a bunch of books at the library (they pick out a bunch on their own too) & we take them home. The children take them out of the bag once we get home & start reading. Even if they start reading the books they checked out, they gobble mine up when done with those. So for our US History I try to check out books from early dates to later dates (loosely). I do also have them do a collaborative project (my 6yo, 13yo & 15yo) once per month on anything they want in US History, any time period, it just has to be history in the US (US scientists, discoveries, exploration, weapons…etc).

  61. Jamie costales says:

    We read the Magic Tree House series and my 4 and 5 yr old love to learn about history. It’s fun for me as well. Bonus! Thanks for the post. I always feel so relieved after reading how “normal” it is to allow kids to set the pace and, more importantly, to let them learn what interests them. When I taught in Head Start we called this teaching to the child-this does not happen in a traditional school setting. For parents interested in specific lessons but allowing their child if/when to use them montessori could be for you. My 5 yr old loved his montessori class! Therefore I try to implement montessori work. The cards, books, and activities are out but only used if tbey express an interest.

  62. This is so timely for me to run across. My oldest just turned 7 and I’m feeling the pressure for him to learn to read. We did do a very gentle K curriculum last year but I keep feeling a tug towards unschooling. He’s always been on his own schedule and when he’s ready to master something, he does. It’s so hard for me to step back and let him develop on his own timetable. I still think on an age/grade timetable. I’ve spent the last couple months researching phonics curriculums but it just seems like such a boring, strict, rule following way to learn to read. I want him to love reading, not look at it as some lesson he dreads. We spend probably an hour or more reading aloud each day and he is starting to sound out simple 3 letter words but I’m feeling the pressure to push him harder. I will reread this and share with my husband. Thank you!

  63. This is really helpful — I’ve had a friend call my family’s approach unschooling (we follow’s curriculum, but loosely) so it’s good to read more about it. Yes, we are happy for our kids to follow their own interests, they love to learn so why interfere, and honestly I’m old and tired and don’t have it in me to be a super-structured homeschooling mom anyway. 🙂

  64. I feel that unschooling is in some ways more difficult that home schooling a more structured program. With a structured program you just follow the steps. I agree that it may be more fulfilling, but as a teacher you have to be willing and able to provide your child with a variety of educational options and situations. Unfortunatly i know an unschooler who’s children run a muck and ravage the house… They do exist those bad unschoolers… i love the idea of unschooling, but i may be a little overwhelmed and unsure how to even take on the task of child guided learning. I hear horror stories about kids who have to undergo extencive tutoring to reenroll in regular school so if i start, id have to be in it for the long haul. If you cold give me feed back and guidance that would be great.

  65. Could you tell a bit more about the rhythm of your day? My oldest is soaking things up and we are starting to do more together “formally” (he begs for experiments daily, of his own or my creation). I love the idea of interest led learning at this age but am having a tough time not feeling like I’m not measuring up to those w set school times/curricula. I guess in just trying to get an idea of what this looks like in practice.
    Diane’s latest post: Does it dissolve?

  66. And what about when your knowledge hits a wall? And you child craves more than you can offer?

    • With the Internet and the plethora of online and real life classes and options available to homeschoolers, I’m not a bit worried about this! The very idea is that you’re setting up a child to learn for themselves, not that you have to be an expert on everything for them. It’s very freeing!

  67. Love your site. Can you give more detail on your kids learning to read without formal lessons? I just want to understand better how that works. I have a daughter who loves to sit and do school work and one who loathes it. I want to try different approaches but being a “new” homeschooler I am not sure how to teach my lesson reluctant daughter to read and write. She gets upset when I try to get her to hold her pencil correctly. I don’t want to cause her to hate school!

  68. I love your question, “What do you want to work on today, and how can I help?” Wrote it down where I can see it often.

  69. I’ve been venturing into more of a interest-led, unschooling philosophy. Theoretically, I love it! practically, I’m really struggling in unlearning the ideas in my head like ‘He should know how to multiply fractions by the end of 5th grade’, and ‘I should keep a record of how well he does on math tests’ and ‘if he doesn’t learn to write well now, he never will!’ or ‘He should learn history chronologically so he knows where things fit in’. It’s really really hard to let go…
    Elaine’s latest post: Lessons Learned in My First Year of Homeschooling

  70. I’ve always admired those who can give themselves fully to the education of their children. Having benefited from such an education myself (before there was a label for it.)
    Now as the mama of four little ones (8, 4, 2, and 3mo) I admit that relaxing into such a rhythm has been hard. But, I take comfort in the truth that even if we require a little more structure right now, we are still taking advantage of the flexibility home schooling offers us. And we remember, it is not the label that makes us.
    Here are some thoughts and words of gratitude I recently shared:
    Rita’s latest post: April 1

  71. This post has inspired me to share with others the beauty of being interest led. No matter the educational camp a family lives in, it’s important to learn with purpose and passion – incorporating interests and enabling a child to bloom into the beautiful person they were created to be! Thank you for this!
    Cara Thompson’s latest post: Interest Led Learning: Educational Theories Defined Part 4

  72. Kathryn says:

    I have gone from a public school teacher to an unschooler. I raised my first 3 children in public school. Now I am raising the next 3 children without formal schooling. I got started, mostly, for health reasons for my 4th child, who was in public school for awhile. After making the commitment to homeschool (we were wushu-washy for a couple of years and sent him back to ps when he missed his friends), I embraced our freedom for our family. I love not being tied to a schedule. We can plan vacations and trips and sporadic visits to museums, family out of state, and Disney off peak seasons, for example. We sleep and wake as our bodies indicate need. We eat when we are hungry and what we want. We learn what we want to, following no curriculum. We are a scouting family, and use merit badges and such for rewards for achievements. I suppose if one were to think of a non-structured summer break from school, then that is how one might view our lifestyle. We do have “schedules” by choice, such as a meeting for scouts or camping trips. However, we have yet to have any form of scheduled “schoolwork,” per se. I cannot imagine life any other way.

  73. Thank you for this wonderful article!
    I would need a lot of advice on u schooling 2 of my 3 children. Children who have gone through 8 and 5 years of education already. I know now what I would do if they were both toddlers again, but what to do, if as a mother I have painfully experienced how their talents, confidence, enthusiasm have slowly gone down….. Ideas, please!

  74. I so enjoyed this article. This is how I homeschooled my boys (they are 18, 29, and 24 now). I have a 2 year old lil girl that I get to do all of this with again and I’m so excited! Reading this has been a breath of fresh air!

  75. Hi Jamie–I love reading your posts and you have inspired me over the years. I’m fully on board wit unschooling in the younger years–I’m curious how it looks for you now that your kids are older. Most of the unschooling stuff I’ve seen is with young kids.

  76. My kids are very young (1&3) and we have done nothing but unschooling this far, because that is part of life with babies and toddlers. I am fully on board with continuing this route of education.

    Like the previous commenter, I am also curious how you feel about the topic now, more than 4 years after your original post.

    Thank you for sharing!

  77. Elizabeth says:

    Excellent description of unschooling, love it!

Share Your Thoughts


CommentLuv badge


Give Your Child the World – on sale for only 99 CENTS! WOW!