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.