Written by contributor Amida of Journey Into Unschooling
I remember the first time I called myself an unschooler. I had just read John Holt’s Teach Your Own and was impressed with his vision of an alternative educational style in which children were encouraged to learn outside of school.
He saw children as scientists, eager and capable of exploring and experimenting with the world around them. Yes, I thought, that is exactly what I wanted my children to experience.
I had visions of them spending their days wandering through nature, collecting and identifying leaves, filling notepads with their amazingly original stories, learning math, engineering, civics, and science through a year-long project of designing and building a cardboard, solar-powered city.
It was learning at its fantastical best — fun, natural, and meaningful.
Up until then, our family had already been homeschooling for about five years. We were mostly traditional, Well-Trained-Mind types with plans to cover history in four-year rotations, complete daily Saxon math drills, and crank out grammatically perfect essays, beautifully written in italics, of course.
Science was to be studied in roughly the same manner, with a four-year-cycle that closely followed the time periods of ancient, medieval, early modern, and modern times in history. Honestly, I loved the structure and academics that went along with a classical education. It made for brilliant kids that read well and tested even better in standardized tests.
Unschoolers, I thought, were just a loose, disorganized, and dare I say, lazy bunch who considered grocery shopping “math” and seeing rainbows through the sprinklers “science”.
So we toiled away at endless math problems, narrations and copywork. My children were well above grade level in all subjects and had better penmanship than your average highschooler.
But there was something missing for me. As the years went by, the blasted math never ended, and my kids grew to hate it, as did I.
Some days, it took just as long trying to begin as it did to complete, and we felt forever behind (even though we weren’t) and never had time for anything fun.
I am a creative person by nature and not having that outlet took its toll on me, and in turn, my children. We never made it past the Grammar Stage.
My Journey into Unschooling
That first year of unschooling, I decided to ditch every curriculum we had and just start from scratch, doing whatever it was that we wanted. We started a monthly art gallery, dissected diapers to see how they worked, and challenged ourselves to create machines and doo-dads out of everyday items.
We practiced our estimating skills with the help of plastic army soldiers. We took field trips to all the local science attractions and volunteered our time with local community groups. We spent weekends doing art inspired by those in art museums.
We turned history lessons into cartoons as a way of record keeping what was learned. As for math? We looked up stories at the library and explored math through literature and manipulatives.
Looking back, it was a pretty awesome time. Did I worry about whether they were learning the right things or at the very least, enough? Of course. Did I worry when they went in for their year-end standardized tests? Yes.
But then again, I worried about those things before I unschooled. I think every homeschooling parent shares these concerns at some point or other. We constantly think about our children’s education just as we think about whether they had brushed before bed. It comes with the territory.
As the kids got older, we did start adding more structure here and there. We have spent time on writing and online programs, learning math through games, science through kits, and history through TV shows.
We have purchased dozens of workbooks, studied classical artists, and learned how to play Star Wars music on the piano. Nevertheless, whether we end up spending our days with Sir Cumference and Horrible Histories, or with Saxon and Story of the World, I still consider us to be unschoolers.
Unschooling, I have learned, isn’t yet another container to pigeonhole our educational philosophy into. Conversely, it is a way of thinking out of the box, learning in whatever way works for us.
Somedays, a worksheet or structured curriculum may just be the thing to help grasp a concept. Other times, a magical day finding rainbows may be all the science we need.
How has your homeschooling evolved through the years?
Originally published on December 5, 2013.
I’ve most definitely evolved in 10 years of homeschooling, mostly by letting go of the “shoulds”. We aren’t unschoolers, but as my experience and confidence grows, I am more comfortable with listening to my children. Recently we made the switch for the younger kids to Life of Fred for math, and they LOVE it. No more struggles and tears when it’s time for math.
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Life of Fred ROCKS. We use it as well and love it. It has helped tremendously with our math aversion.
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I got the whole Fred elementary series, and my 8 year old carries them randomly around the house, reading. There’s probably a couple in each room of the house. Those, The Way Things Work, and a library book on making 100 things are his current facilities favorites. . . I think that last one’s going to start lots of fun messes!
I loved the structure and academics of the classical method as well – but it didn’t work for my kids either. I think that was the first time I had to learn the lesson “It’s not about me!” LOL (Unfortunately, I’ve had to learn that one again and again.) We are mostly Waldorf homeschoolers in the morning, with a healthy dose of interest-led afternoons. Wondering if anyone fits in any box/category completely?
I enjoyed this piece a lot.
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Sheila: This is what I am striving to do. I am hoping to get up close and personal with the book about project based learning for our afternoons. We have a new baby coming, have a 10 year old ready to branch out for new things so I think this all calls for a change for us. I would love to know how you approach your afternoons!
Have you heard of the Thinking Tree Fun Schooling Journals? They are an excellent way to set kids up for independent delight driven research time, especially with a new baby (I even bought myself one because I loved the kids’ so much)! I buy them on Amazon, but the author’s website (I think it’s dyslexiagames.com) has a listing of all the journals broken down by age- their own interests and books become the curriculum! They occasionally go on sale on Amazon if you are hunting a good deal.
Your story sounds so similar to ours! We started out as just relaxed, fun preschool. Then the pressure to achieve started and I put us under a burden of structured curriculum and methods. Abeka led to Charlotte Mason, and eventually I discovered John Taylor Gatto and Grace Llewellyn. It took me a while though to let go of the struture – to be ok with math being learning volume and area from a video game. But the journey has been amazing! We have evolved, and morphed over the years. At times we need more structure to keep sane, and at other times we throw off anything that looks like school and just do our own thing.
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Laura Grace Weldon
Your experience echoes ours. When I pulled my kids out of school to homeschool I was sure that I could “make” math interesting. We included it in unit studies, took it outside, played math games, etc. This worked fine for three out of my four kids. But that one child was extraordinarily resistant to anything that smelled like math, at least when it was imposed on him. Yet he used pretty sophisticated math for an 8-year-old to design his own balsa airplanes and rockets. It took plenty of nagging, complaining, and resisting (from ME!) but gradually I stepped back. I researched. And I finally learned to do all I could to let him own the math he was learning. It worked!
Here’s some research on how math instruction can actually shortchange deeper ways of learning math. http://lauragraceweldon.com/2014/11/19/the-benefits-of-natural-math/
And here’s a post with 100 ways to incorporate math into your lives.
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Oh gosh – a little laugh-out-loud at the grocery shopping being Maths comment. I guess using that definition, we must be unschoolers!
I love the freedom of exploring what my boys are interested in at any point in time and despite using Maths curriculums and reading programs from time to time, strategy board games, grocery shopping, selling home-made fudge seem to have given us all the most learning experiences this year!
As a veteran homeschooler that is new to unschooling I have to say, THANK YOU for this post! It is so good! I think this may be one of my favorite posts on this site. I so needed to hear this today. I have been struggling with what were are (or are not) doing and you hit the nail on the head when you said you worried about that even when you weren’t USing. I feel like I just got a boost that I needed! Thank you so much!
You just gave *me* a boost. Thank you for your kind words!
Our homeschool has also evolved from school at home to unit studies with rigid math and language arts curriculum to eclectic style, using unit studies, lapbooking, and quite a bit of unschooling. The only thing that holds me back from fully unschooling is the strict PA homeschool law that requires work samples and standardized testing in third, fifth, and eighth grade. I just don’t know what would happen if my kids scored significantly lower than they used to because of not following a formal math curriculum. I dream of moving to a more homeschool-friendly state someday.
renee @ FIMBY
Shelly, have you contacted any unschooler support groups in PA to see how their members handle these tests and the results? There are unschoolers in PA. How do they do it? Where there is a will there’s a way (smile).
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Thanks for the advice, Renee. I haven’t had much luck finding anyone so far. Every time I find a contact or email address, it comes back as no longer being used. I’ll keep trying, though.
Btw, I clicked over to your website and subscribed. Good stuff!
Hi, Shelly! I know you posted this comment awhile back, but I was wondering if you are in eastern or western pa? I am in Reading, and I run a homeschool meetup.com and support group called Secular Homeschoolers of Reading. We are a group of families that homeschool for a myriad of reasons and in a gazillion different ways. We also have a Facebook group, in case you don’t live close by but think you’d benefit from picking the brains of other folks who are navigating these waters. We def have several eclectic and un-school-y members who could help!
We are also required to turn in samples monthly and take tests every year (beginning, ending, and sometimes in the middle!). I really struggled with the samples until I realized they just needed a sheet of paper in each subject as proof the kids were learning. It didn’t have to be anything spectacular. In fact, the more straightforward the better. In other words, they just wanted a worksheet. So we spend a day filling out worksheets in any concrete sample we are missing. For instance, we could study the human body all month but the district would just need a labeled diagram of the major bones. (My go to site for free worksheets is http://www.education.com.) As far as testing, there are usually released test samples that the kids could work on prior to the test if it is a concern. You can spend time brushing up or learning any holes you find from these results and work it into your schedule.
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Thank you so much for your help! I’m actually going to check right now if the CAT has test samples. That’s really my biggest worry because I’m now more confident about the work samples.
Btw, Amida, can I subscribe to your posts through email? Sometimes I can’t tell because I have to use my phone until we get another laptop.
You know Amida that there are some very good real schools that actually teach this way. I went to a graduate school called Bank Street that has a school from 3 yr olds to 8th grade and its amazing how they include all of these unschooling methods into their schooling. (true schools like that are very few and also cost a fortune)
Definitely! I don’t doubt there are great schools and teachers out there. But, I agree, bummer they are few and costly.
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You may have just saved my life, my life of really wanting to homeschool but not being able to be structured everyday. In kindergarten , we adopted our son, in another state, I was there for three months, my daughter was with me for two, the last month, she went home with her dad. We had Sonlight, it was going to be a very organized and simple year. My son was sick, for a very long time. Then, we learned that Lydia learned differently, VERY differently. Reading, math, writing… including AD/HD and mood disorder, unspecified. Somewhere in there I had a triple brain aneurysm, a brain bleed, a small stroke, and three brain surgeries.
There is nothing “organized” about how we do homeschool. We use TV a lot. The Smithsonian, History, and all the Discovery Channels offer a ton of interesting shows. There are documentaries, there are series on Netflix, PBS, all of them way more interesting than I am.
I survived my brain exploding, but not unscathed. I have a bad headache every day, and horrendous break-through headaches way too often for me. I can not exercise, or hike, or ride a bike. I can not read well (losing read aloud chapter books is the worst) because I am losing vision in my left eye.
But, Lydia could give a college level lecture on the digestive system and g-tube dependencies. She could do a darn good job of discussing the brain. She is an encyclopedia of knowledge about things from watching “How It’s Made” on the Science Channel (one I forgot to mention above: Futurescape, Through the Wormhole).
You give me hope that I am not denying my children an eduction because we do not sit around the table to five hours every day, checking off each subject as I reach for the next set of books. You strengthen my resolve to keep my daughter at home where she can learn various subjects at her rate, and not be different. You empower me to teach my son with my daughter because she is wicked smart, even though she learns differently, because he is going to learn differently, too, and she will understand.
Thank you. Because today I thought it might be time to call the school because we do not sit around that table., because I have a lot of headaches, because I am so tired, because we lost our house and I do not want to lose my kids. Today, I believe we are all learning together. Every moment is a teaching moment. We learn compassion by being together. Thank you.
God bless you through the holidays and along your crooked path of school.
Thank you for sharing your story, Julie. I especially like the crooked path metaphor!
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This is a wonderful post and perfect timing for me. I think I had an unrealistic vision of what unschooling is, wild and so unstructured that the kids would make me into a doormat. So thank you for this.
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No doormat here… 🙂
You can totally have structure and still unschool.
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Thank you for this post. We are doing Saxon Math in addition to our classical homeschool group and I have to admit, I really don’t like it. It dies take forever! And it’s tedious. The problem is that I don’t know what to do instead. Any ideas?! Thanks!
Too, I think my kids are much more feared the unschooling model but the lack of structure scares me as I don’t know what to teach them or how they would learn it. I feel so much pressure to make sure they are always learning that it takes the fun out. Anyway, overall, we are really enjoying homeschooling. Thanks again!
We are using Right Start Math and really enjoy it. The lessons are not too long and there are games and manipulatives. You might want to check it out.
Erin - The Usual Mayhem
A vote here for Math By Hand – lots of hands-on learning all wrapped in stories. It’s really reasonably priced, too.
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I am in the process of reevaluating most of our school process. One thing I have changed is that I am letting my 4th grader read his math lessons and do the lesson practice and then move on to the next lesson. As long as he continues to do well on his tests we will continue to do math this way. We are also using saxon and our methis has evolved from writing out each problem to doing it all orally to just writing out the lesson practice. If seems to be working just fine.
I love the idea of unschooling and my daughter hates the dreaded ” table” and so do I for that matter. I wanted learning to be fun and less standardized, but what I’ve discovered is that I am just doing standardized school at home. My issue would be how to put into words into a homeschool journal what unschooling activities we did and how they pertain to the “required” reading, writing, arithmetic on a daily basis. I am a first- time homeschooler this year by the way. than you for your post. It’s very encouraging.
I’ll just give you an example of a logged unschooling day we just had:
English- silent reading, creative writing in her Christmas journal, letter writing in her handmade Christmas cards, trip to library book sale
Math- taught fractions to younger siblings while playing school, doubled recipe while preparing lunch, budgeting and making purchases with her own money, counted money upon return to see what she had left
Social Studies- read American Girl- Caroline- 1812
Science- studied salamanders and slugs in backyard, researched a spider she found, made macaroni and cheese (chemistry)
Art- made Christmas cards out of foam sheets and taught sisters how to do it
Gym- went for walk, rode scooter
Home Economics- washed dishes, mopped floor, polished furniture, made and prepared lunch
This is just one example. Legos could be math (logic, problem solving) and art, playing house could be social studies, exploring outside could be science and gym. Most of what our children do can be considered learning.
Amida, this is our first year homeschooling and we have more of a classical setting. Your post on this subject has confirmed what I already knew but was doubting myself. Our daughter, 7 yrs old, and I like structure but we both would like to have days that are unstructured. This post has helped me to envision how to get there. Thank you
Thanks Shelly for showing us your unschooling day….really gave me a lot of insight and ideas to move us into a less structured day.
Why not have both? There is no reason why you have to have only structured or unstructured days. As the saying goes, variety is the spice of life!
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renee @ FIMBY
Amida, I’ve been reading your posts here ever since I was a contributor myself. THis is one of my absolute favorites you’ve written. I laughed out loud at your grocery store math and science sprinklers – ha, ha!!
I’ve started very relaxed and have kept that way until recent years when I needed to be more disciplined for my childrens’ sakes. As they get older I need to be more on the ball!
Thank you for sharing with Simple HOmeschool readers what interest-led learning looks like. It’s not about the materials you use so much as it’s about the materials serving your needs, not the other way around.
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This was a beautiful post. Thank you. We definitely follow a more classical model in our home school. For the most part we like it. We are a second generation home school family. One thing my mom taught me is that we own the curriculum, the curriculum does not own us. Therefore even though we use Saxon (and really like it.) I have no qualms abut skipping lessons that we can/have covered in real life or not doing every problem on the page. We also build in weeks where we “take a break.” We use this time to unwind and practice what we have been learning in real life settings. That said I don’t think we can define ourselves as unschoolers by any means, but that’s okay. We are happy and learning together. Home schooling is so beautiful that way.
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Rita — sounds like you are doing fine!
By the way, it took me four years of Saxon to realize I didn’t have to assign every single problem in the book. Funny how we get stuck in thinking how we are supposed to do things! Yes, you will pass 3rd grade if you skipped problems #4, #45, and maybe even #67!
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That’s similar to what Ruth Beechick advocated. Using curriculum as a tool. Not letting it dictate you. I’ve also learned about Ella Frances Lynch who talked similarly in the early 1900’s http://www.nche.com/search/node/lynch to Beechick or well Beechick to Lynch
Love this post. I think my biggest regret is not unschooling from the beginning. I feel like it has taken me ten years to get comfortable thinking out of the box, and now that I do my children (gasp) enjoy learning. All of my kids have dyslexia and I really regret trying to force them to fit into a mold because I was too afraid of what that would look like to other people. This year, with my oldest in 10th grade, I finally said, “I don’t care how ‘they’ say we should do things. I know my kids, and we’re doing it different.” So freeing! Thanks for sharing!
I can so relate to this! Last night I told my husband I was going to try some project based learning after Christmas . After 7 years of homeschooling I have moved from classical to leaning towards unschooling. It is so natural avd scary at the same time. Today they are studying physics as they throw themselves down our hills of snow on sleds. ; ).
The longer I homeschool, the more I find myself loosening up. We’re going to be taking a break from Abeka math and using Life of Fred starting in January, and I’m hoping to incorporate more project based work. I’ll probably toss aside a few other workbooks as well. As much as I love the classical approach, it just doesn’t seem to work well in our large, crazy (in a good way) family. I find myself becoming a dictator trying to get everything done; no one is happy. I don’t want to be the bad guy all day, especially if my kids can learn in other ways. I don’t expect my kids to LOVE everything we do, but when all they say all day is how much they “hate school” something has to change.
Lori in NY
I would love to go more of an unschooling route for my middle (6th grade) & high school (10th) children, as school now is mostly drudgery for ALL of us. But having to submit a yearly plan of instruction, quarterly reports telling everything we covered, plus a report at the end of the year, it would be difficult to do (and I refuse to make up things on those reports like some must do). Also, my son needs to study hard to do well on the SATs, as he’d like to attend college, butwe can’t afford to send him without scholarships. 🙁 Any thoughts at all for my situation?
I’m replying very late, but maybe your question is still relevant or is similar to what someone else is wondering. I’m a huge planner. We also love unschooling. I think you can do both.
As for the SATs, attending a test prep course is usually very helpful in preparing kids for the test. There’s many study guides as well.
As for your yearly plan of instruction, I think it depends on how specific you need to be. If you’re required to be very specific, why not sit down with your kids, show them what general topics they’re expected to study (history, English, etc) and help them devise their own plans based on their own interests. They’re old enough to be involved and it could be a great learning experience.
As for quarterly and yearly reports, I do those on my own although I’m not required. I just like making what we did come together. I keep track in my daily journal what we did each day. Any field trips, books read, projects completed, important questions asked. I can go back and see things like, “wow, my son’s interest in community helpers (firefighters, paramedics, etc) translates into a great social studies unit.” I can compile all the activities and books we completed based on the topic, add in things he wrote or drew, add pictures of our trip to the fire station, and so on. He also learned a lot about how rescue vehicles work so I can look at all that and create a science unit based on the technology and engineering information
he acquired along the way. This is all done after the fact. Unit Studies in reverse. You can compile all your reports into an end of the year report. It’s kind of fun to see how much they accomplish looking at it this way.
I, too, started out (naively HA!) thinking that all children learned alike, and that all one had to to was to present material slowly and at a suitable level and children would sit quietly and their little brains would absorb the info like so many little sponges. Oh well. That’s just not how it works. God blessed us (through adoption) with a VERY active daughter whose learning challenges were matched by her love of the outdoors & animals and her inability to sit still for too long. We’re definitely not unschoolers, but we’ve pared down formal lessons to the basics. I worried (and sometimes still do), but then one day I noticed that she was taking notes while watching vet shows. She’d also created an Access database for her imaginary vet clinic, and then I made her a simple Excel spreadsheet in order for her to keep her “business records.” In our curriculum, we relate as much material as we can to everyday life and everyday problems (living on a farm really helps here; there’s a lot of practical math.) Homeschooling ISN’T easy, but it’s amazing what the children learn, even when you’re not “teaching.”
Thanks for this post. I’ve been struggling with what our homeschool should look like. We are all burnt out on the “school at home” thing we’ve tried and I’ve been seeking God’s wisdom as to what to do next. We’ve been using First Language Lessons so I thought I’d pick up The Well Trained Mind at the library yesterday. I looked all over and, though the computer claimed it was there, it wasn’t where it should have been. Instead I came home with John Holt’s Teach Your Own and I’ve just started reading it. Maybe this was all providential. Blessings on you.
I’m really glad you found something that worked for your family.
My three siblings and I were homeschooled our entire lives; looking back we were closer to unschoolers. My Mom got a lot of grief from everyone (extended family to random people who thought they knew better) but she kept doing what she knew was best. Fast forward to today. My older sister graduated with high honors and is now a successful registered nurse who is quickly climbing the ladder to higher positions. I am currently in college, just graduated with a bachelors (with a 3.89 GPA) and am now working to obtain my second degree. My two younger brothers are each successful business owners and are in their mid 20s. Neither myself or my siblings, before college, had stepped into a classroom. We are all successful and are very sociable people who quickly make friends and are loved by all (their words) . Homeschooling/unschooling is the best option available (Oh and in case you were wondering, my mom had a high school education.)
Love it – thanks for sharing your story, TMG!
Most definitely sounds like your adjustment period has given rise to steady improvements into a positive learning model. Major props.
Great post! It’s a great way to explain what unschooling is. I’m always looking at our options for curriculum and have considered unschooling many times. Here in TX they make it really easy on us homeschoolers, so I’m very lucky in that regard. I will need to check out this Life of Fred I’ve read in the above comments! Anything to make math fun is a win in my book!
Cait @ My Little Poppies
I adore this. I have only been homeschooling for a year but I have found that, as I relax, we journey deeper into unschooling with very positive benefits.
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I can so completely relate to the math problem. I’m in my second year homeschooling. I quit after my daughter’s kindergarten year because I used a curriculum that was torture for us (a beka) and we both hated homeschooling after. Honestly, it was a nightmare. I sent her to a private school in grade one, but couldn’t shake my strong desire to watch and share in her experience of learning. So at Christmas when she grumbled to me how bored she was, I took her out. And in January I mostly winged it. The crazy thing is all I did for English (besides some online games) was get her as many library books as possible (that she chose). And you know what? She went from reading simple picture books to chapter books by February! I couldn’t believe it!
I see great value in unschooling. But I am having trouble letting go of curriculum. I still want to use curriculum, but I want to opt out of testing, use supplementary texts (and videos) that are fun. And play! And linger, or skip whenever needed. If I guide the introduce a subject (like ancient history) can I still be an unschool mom?
I did get the dreaded math curriculum this year. We are a few pages from done now. She hates it. I hate forcing her to do it (because I know she’s not learning if I’m forcing her). But I want her to learn the stuff. Sorry this was so long! I appreciate your honesty in your journey, and I guess I had to get mine out there too. I am excited to continue learning how to back off, and watching them flourish in their own gifts and interests.
You took the words right out of my mind..haha!
Great article for families considering converting to unschooling. It has been such a joy watching my kids truly love learning by living an unschooled life.
Seasoned unschool mom of two teens.