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. kimberly says:

    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. Aadel says:

    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. Lina says:

    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. Taylor says:

    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. Beth says:

    “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. Michelle says:

    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.

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