Five Basics Of Unschooling

Stakes supporting young plants. Image by on

Today on Penelope’s homeschooling blog, Penelope Trunk and a commenter who I know from comments at Forging Soul, Jennifer, were discussing the struggles they face with unschooling. I commented twice on that thread actually, first here, then I could not resist posting the second one–check it out if you want to take a look at the discussion.

This comment summarizes probably just about every point I have made on the topic (in other comments) over the past few months:


Jennifer, and Penelope, I see this struggle a lot in parents who are unschooling young kids. Maybe it’s universal.

Unschooling is more than the negation of a wrong–more than the usual definition we all start with as simply “not schooling.”

It is doing something right: creating a better alternative educational process. And you’re still figuring out exactly how–which is natural.

There are things I have come to believe as an unschooling parent that I must do right to fulfill my responsibilities, and to achieve the goals that motivated me to unschool in the first place. This has helped me be confident in myself as an unschooler. Here are five suggestions:

1. Support the natural learning process. Give your child room to discover the threads of interest and follow them to their passions. Create an environment of trust by being honest about the demands of life, as well as the joys. Treat your child as a human being, worthy of respect and dignity. Give them freedom to discover the world and understand themselves–in their own way.

2. Be mindful of your child’s development, and be ready to offer guidance. Make yourself available as a resource your child can draw upon as needed for help measuring progress, setting goals, making realistic plans, managing themselves, and dealing with others. These are life-lessons that you’re uniquely qualified and positioned to help with.

3. Provide materials and opportunities: Books, recordings, equipment, opportunities to see more of the world and meet people with shared interests from whom they can learn. Don’t just answer requests; offer! If it’s not immediately apparent to them why you’re offering, don’t be afraid to sell it a little. Your child’s job is to churn through what you give them along with what they find on their own. Your job is to make sure they always have new things to churn through.

4. Be involved. Children crave parental recognition, encouragement, and approval. This does not mean spending every moment with the kids or smothering them. It means taking an interest in what they are learning because they are learning it. It also means sharing your interests with them. If you try, but cannot bring yourself to endure a subject your kids have passion for, you have a responsibility to find someone who can–or hire someone who will.

5. Finally, don’t be an un-parent. As much as children need an education, they need parents more. This means cultivating a relationship where they return the trust you give them. As unschooled children, they enjoy immense freedom, but not unlimited. If you say that great literature is great, and it’s worth the learning curve, they should have long experience that you tend to be right about these things. If you say a certain amount of math will be needed in life, they will trust you as an authority on what life is all about, because of your obviously greater experience. Sometimes you have to work through the difficult part of learning to get to the more rewarding part. That is an important thing to learn. The best time for your child to discover he needed to know how to swim is not the first time he finds himself in way over his head.

Unschooling is natural, but it properly has a certain rigor, like farming or birthing or breastfeeding. It takes time to build the skills and then to build your confidence in them. Give yourself that time.

As far as I can tell the two of you are both on the right track!

15 thoughts on “Five Basics Of Unschooling”

  1. What a wonderful response. I love everything about what you shared and how you clarified what it means to be an unschooling parent. So many times the lines of parent and educator can become muddled in confusion. This states it quite clearly.

    1. Thank you Tina. I took a look at your blog and I have to say, based on the short bio you have at the top, you’re my hero! The raw endurance and honestly–heroism–you have is an inspiration.

  2. This was perfect for those that don’t understand unschooling or are just starting out with it. I’m going to post this to my blog @ some point b/c I have some friends that have erroneous opinions about unschooling.

    1. You’re right Evelyn, my parents managed to basically homeschool me even though I went to school–so we had a lot less time available–but it was still very effective. My dad passed his passion for science on to me, and my mom her passion for literature and writing. Parents can get amazing results whether the kids are in school or not, by putting the time in and taking the right approach. And we can all learn from each other.

  3. I linked here from Pinterest…and am so thankful to you for sharing this. So many people really have no idea what it is to be an unschooling parent and I’m happy to now have this to send to them when they question how we do things. :) Thanks so much, Mark. Nice to “meet” you. ~Debbie

    1. Hi Debbie. You have a wonderful blog. I noticed you mention that your son, Isaac is sensitive. I recently discovered an excellent resource on highly sensitive people, and it really helped me understand and tie some things together about myself. You might find it worthwhile reading :)

  4. Mark, thank you for this. Unschooling is something I’ve been interested in but know little about. This post helps.

    Are there any resources you would recommend to a total newbie at unschooling? Also, is there a “technique” to unschooling your kids? Or is it more of a self-taught thing on the part of the parent?

    1. Tony, that’s such a great question that I’ll answer it (the best I can) with a post. I’ll e-mail you when it’s posted.

  5. Thank you for summarising everything so well. As we’re about to begin our first ‘official’ year of educating away from school (children aged 2 & 4), it’s nice to see things in a clear light that can be explained when the questions arise from family, friends, and strangers as to ‘how’ will I teach them? Goodness, our children aren’t being raised by wolves, and we’ve been teaching them since birth, so it’s really a natural continuation and learning experience for us all.

    1. You’re so right, Crystal. It’s a natural continuation of the same processes you used the first several years in raising your child. Does one have to be certified to teach a child to speak the language of the parents? Or to teach a child to walk? By speaking to a child, and listening to them practice on you, they learn to speak. By giving them a little support (and keeping them away from stairs!) they learn to crawl and then stand and then toddle and then walk. And then run!

  6. I found this post through pinterest, and it was so well said! I particularly liked the part about not “un-parenting.” Unschooling seemed like a very natural progression from homeschooling in our family, but I have a very hard time with some of the dogma surrounding food/media/bedtimes in many unschooling circles. Your post gave a very balanced and refreshing perspective.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *