Back to Unschool

photo credit: 
Linesdata on Wikimedia Commons
It's as 'real world' as it gets

The sales are a fading memory, as are the news stories showing wide-eyed six-year-olds entering the brave new world. Kids have begun to figure out their new routines. This year, as we have for the past few, my daughter and I celebrated instead of going back to school.

We unschool, for lack of a better term. What this means in practice varies widely from family to family of unschoolers. Some call what we do "child-led learning." Some call it living. We do what we've always done. I do what interests me, my spouse does what interests him, and we both help our daughter find what interests her. Under this way of life, the learner's job is to learn, and to choose what to learn, in what way. Sometimes, it's explained as treating children as guests who don't know all the neat things about our town (read "world") and so we show them the possibilities. It's up to them to choose.

All that is required of families to embrace this idea is a fundamental change in viewpoint. Like opening Pandora's box, though, once you begin to question, it's hard to go back. My spouse is fond of asking people who question the notion of unschooling to name an institution in the "real world" where one sits with ten to thirty people within one year of your age, while an older person runs the show. If people can think of an answer, it's often the military. Boot camp isn't the first model which springs to my mind when thinking of an ideal learning environment.

Whether or not it's articulated, most of the time "education" is viewed as a process of filling kids up with knowledge. It's "out there," usually in the brain of an adult, and then it's put "in there" by some process at school. In our case, my child doesn't know many facts about the world. But she's full of ideas for finding out what she doesn't know. Every walk or drive becomes a question and answer session. Learning is inside of her. All I can do is help the process along, not fill up her deficits.

And unschool is all you can eat!
And what about the bugbear of a well-rounded education? I call this the "cruise ship buffet" theory of education. You should try a little of everything, so when someone asks how the lobster bisque is, you don't say, "I only tried the mashed potatoes."

There's a fear that if our kids specialize too early, they'll miss out on some vital part of human knowledge. Even though no two school district's curricula include the same items, there's a notion that somewhere, engraved on tablets, is What One Should Know. To cultural literacy and well-roundedness proponents, I say "Pooh." No one person can say what people "ought" to know. (And if you know someone who's confident saying it, avoid them.)

The vast world of knowledge has enough nooks and crannies to satisfy everyone. It's rather amusing to hear people suggest that a child following a passionate interest is somehow being cheated. The real joke comes, of course, when someone tries to explain how a narrow interest means missing other branches of learning.

In reality, learning only one thing at a time is impossible. Music leads to math, cars lead to history and/or design, ballet, my daughter's current passion, leads to mythology. Dividing the world up into sections to fit into a notebook is an artifact of school's needs to have a labeled curriculum. Real life flows, with different areas of knowledge meeting in unexpected ways.

They WANT to learn? YES!
But what if all they want to do is watch videos? For many, the notion of self-motivated learning contradicts their experience of young people. Sure, some kids may exhibit less willingness to do what grownups think is constructive than others. Without active interference, simply supporting a child's interests and making materials available is enough. My child wants to explore the environment around her.

We aren't passive agents, either. I can demonstrate my own interests in front of my family. We can casually leave interesting books and materials around, or make gentle suggestions. Interesting people come into our lives. We can be patient and trust our child.

The "life's a bitch" theory debunked
Then there are those who counter that unschooling doesn't prepare a person for a world full of unappetizing choices. Why should your child get to follow passionate interests, determine the pace at which those interests are pursued, if later on they won't have options? Aren't we setting them up for disappointment in a world where individuals mean less than stock reports? Suppose I grant this argument.

If this is true, I want them to have a memory of happiness and delight to cherish. A happy childhood might provide insurance against any spirit-killing future.

But I don't grant the argument. In my area of the world, the people who are making the most money, and, incidentally having the most fun, are those who are doing just what they want to. Instead of worrying that our children will have to be faceless drones, let's support the notion of work as a vocation. There is no better preparation for finding work to love than following interests when young.

So, my child may not be learning what the kids at school are. In fact, she's probably not going to be doing a lot of things on anyone else's schedule. My job isn't to check the calendar, but to provide the resources and act as a sympathetic guide and encourager. Instead of back to school, we'll keep doing more of the same. Living our lives, learning what we love, and exploring some of the delights of planet earth.

Contributing Editor Stefani Leto writes and parents in the Bay Area. Mother of an almost-five year old and an infant, she says nothing challenges her mind like parenting. Her work also appears at and