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 serves as editor of Simple Homeschool, and blogs about mindful parenting at Steady Mom. Jamie is also the author of two books: Steady Days and Mindset for Moms.


  1. 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

  2. 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

  3. 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.

  4. 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

  5. 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.

  6. “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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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!

  10. 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).

  11. 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.

  12. 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!

  13. 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. :)

  14. 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.

  15. 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?

  16. 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!

  17. 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!

  18. 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.

  19. 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

  20. 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

  21. 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

  22. 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.

  23. 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!

  24. 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!

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