Some Advice For A Beginning Unschooler

Mark and Nathan ReadingMy friend and fellow blogger Tony Fuentes asked me a couple questions in the comments that I felt needed a bit more room to answer.

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 parents?

Let’s start with a couple terms. “Homeschooling,” is the term used by most of society to describe what you’re considering. It involves you and your child complying with whatever ordinances your municipality has set for excusing children from the standard compulsory education proscribed across the country. It is a legal matter. And it is not trivial in most places, it requires meeting requirements and submitting forms, seeking approval from school boards and possibly other government agencies. This varies according to your state and even your individual school system.

Within the community of people who have chosen to do this, however, there is a spectrum between better-schooling-at-home (described typically with that same term “homeschooler”), and natural learning (usually called “unschooling”). Homeschoolers use a conscious and purposely-chosen curriculum. Unschoolers use a curriculum that emerges organically from their child’s interests, personality, and learning styles. The spectrum mainly involves the balance of parent-led vs. child-led curriculum.

Where on that spectrum you feel most comfortable is something you will have to decide, probably many times, over the course of raising your children. Some unschoolers like to prefix themselves with “radical” and that just means that they are not just “inspired” by the concepts of natural learning, they are fully committed to the sometimes scary prospect of letting their kids learning nature express itself organically, and in it’s own time.

No matter what style you end up with, homeschooling and unschooling each involve dedicating your life, over the course of your children’s childhood, to education. Theirs of course, but also your own.

The best estimates I could find for recent times in the US are that about two million kids in the US are homeschooled. It has been doubling every ten years or so. It has quadrupled since my wife and I started in the mid nineties. Some of us who started back then are still battle-scarred from the repeated scorn of peoples’ reactions that we were “damaging” our kids. You’ll find a considerably more tolerant atmosphere now, but it is important that you realize you are choosing to be a very small minority. A minority many people still think they have an obligation to set straight.

If two million kids are home schooled, then these represent about three percent of all kids in the US. Estimates vary but roughly one third of homeschoolers consider themselves unschoolers. So you are electing to be in a class that represents only one percent of the US population. Radical unschoolers might be half that.

So unschooling is the fringe of the fringe, and you’ll need to explain yourself, and defend yourself, to not just well-meaning people in every sphere of life where people inquire about your kids (which is every sphere) but also to other people who educate their kids at home. This is why self-educating yourself about the benefits and arguments for and against is usually a good place to start. Unschooling can get lonely unless you take measures to connect to others who can lend you support and encouragement.

I believe your oldest child (or only child) is still very young. There is time. My advice to you is to start with reading some of the seminal thinkers in the “movement.” John Holt has a number of books to choose from, I’d recommend starting with “How Children Learn.” You might be able to get it at the library, although buying has the advantage that you can underline and write your notes in the margins!

My favorite author and thinker–on both the ills of government schooling and the benefits of home education–is John Taylor Gatto. I suppose I would recommend starting with “Weapons of Mass Instruction.”

Understand intellectually what your heart and gut are telling you right now about unschooling. Take turns reading these and other books, and discussing them, with your wife because this is something that the two of you are going to do together and it is an enterprise on the order of starting a business together. You will want to be on the same page and similarly committed. You will be each other’s essential core support.

Begin your adventure by teaching yourselves why and how unchooling is the best way available to you to achieve the following in raising your children:
[custom_list type=”check”]

  • Healthy body.
  • Positive attitude.
  • Considerate and attractive personality.
  • Independent and inquisitive mind.
  • Vivid and creative imagination.
  • Sound and responsible character.
  • Warm and open heart.
  • Whole psyche.
  • Beautiful soul.


Then I’d recommend trying to find a homeschooling group, and if possible an unschooling group near you. You’ll need guidance on meeting the legal guidelines in your municipality. It is possible you might have to move to a community more amenable to your efforts. It’s possible you might have to start your own unschooling group.

And of course, online communities can be very helpful. Back when I started, Sandra Dodd was one of the only people out there and she has been a solid voice of leadership ever since. I looked for a couple hours and she was still the best I could find. Many talented thinkers and fellow unschoolers are accessible through her site, as those she worked with and mentored have matured into leaders in their on right.

The National Home Education Network looks like it has some good articles. And Enjoy Life Unschooling has a pretty good roundup of resources too. I read Penelope Trunk’s Homeschooling Blog regularly and comment pretty often. She’s often controversial but always interesting, and her blog gives one view into the life of a person struggling through the first steps of finding her way unschooling. Many of her commenters are great to read as well. I’d also recommend checking out the sites of some of the people who’ve commented here. Seeing the way ordinary people work out the details of unschooling can be more informative than reading scholarly articles.

You could check out Forging Soul too, where I try my best to help adults who may not have had the luxury of being unschooled, work on that same checklist of personal development that I listed above. When all else fails, e-mail me :)

Edit: Commenter Michele reminded me about Joyce Fetteroll’s excellent site Joyfully Rejoicing. Well worth a visit, and thanks Michele!

10 thoughts on “Some Advice For A Beginning Unschooler”

  1. This is totally freaking awesome. Thank you so much Mark for taking the time to go into detail here for me. This helps immensely. Unfortunately, my group of friends either don’t have kids or have never heard of unschooling. So it’s refreshing to actually get some useful advice.

    The resources you’ve provided look amazing and I can’t wait to sink my teeth into them.

    Thanks again for being awesome and I look forward to unschooling even more now!

    1. Very welcome Tony. I had fun writing it. My wife though, when she read it, asked how patience did not merit inclusion! She’s right–more than anything else probably, more than anything you can learn about education, cultivating patience will bring huge returns.

  2. I found your site via Pinterest.

    I have been radically unschooling my three kids for several years now. Tony: if you like Sandra Dodd’s writing you may also like Joyce Fetteroll’s website “Joyfully Rejoicing”. It is broken down in a way that answers all the common questions people new to unschooling thought tend to ask. I would point out though, that radical unschoolers do not use *any* kind of curriculum and extend their beliefs to all areas of parenting including, for example, food and bedtimes.

    1. Thanks Michele! I added a note to the post about Joyce’s site. You’re right it is a great resource!

      Your definition of radical unschooling matches my own, although my son has used things like Khan Academy and online classes when he found something that appealed to him, like one for learning wordpress recently. Rather than no curriculum per se, it seems to me it is no preconceptions, no limits. Which of course people don’t have much frame of reference for understanding if they have not experienced what happens when you do not set limits–nature shows you where the limits are, your own unique nature shows you where your personal limits are right now. Hard to believe for some, but once you see it in action, you never want to go back to any other way.

      1. When I said we don’t use curricula I meant in the externally imposed way that most school-at-home people do.

        I think many new homeschoolers hear “curriculum” and they think they have to divide all the subjects up and find the appropriate textbooks to teach those things. Radical unschoolers don’t structure their learning in that way because they see learning as more holistic…coming from a place of interest and internal motivation where the learner chooses the means and method.

        It is indeed challenging to understand these concepts when our society is so inculcated with the belief that learning only occurs when a teacher pours knowledge into a waiting vessel and that teachers are experts in that act.

  3. Hi Mark!

    I found you by googling stuff about unschooling but I recognize you from Penelope Trunk’s homeschool blog!

    This is great. I always enjoy your comments.

    So, since I feel like I know you a bit I have a few questions I’d like to ask.

    I have a new baby, 3 months.

    We’re shooting to unschool. Right now I am enrolled in something called “Parents as Teachers” it’s a program by “Ready by 5.” Pretty much it is training or help for parents to help their children be ready to go to school by 5. I secretly wanted their help but tailor it to our style since I don’t plan to send my baby to school. But the lady who comes to visit me is a Montessori trained teacher. She gave me some of Maria Montessori’s books and I am amazed at how wise she was regarding teaching!!

    There are things my baby is supposed to be doing now, like lots of tummy time (which he absolutely hates) and grabbing things or stuff like that. Sometimes he’s interested sometimes he isn’t. And I want to help him develop well but I don’t want to force him to do things he’s just not into.

    I started googling stuff about unschooling because I am concerned that I am not doing enough. When he’s awake I try to balance spending face time with him and giving him a few minutes alone to explore/think/look at things he wants to look that he can’t do because if I carry him I am pretty much limiting what he can do.

    I am unsure if you unschooled/homeschooled all along or later on after your kids went to regular school. Can you help me figure things out? I’d greatly appreciate it!

    I am so happy to have found your blog :)

    1. Hi Karelys,

      You have started to seek out training that you can adapt to your own style. And I know you’re reading blogs and taking part as well, asking questions – that’s a good start.

      There is lots of time. My advice would be to start by reading. Books by Gatto, and John Holt. Keep reading at the homeschooling resources that are out there. Over time, you will develop a feeling for exactly how you want to proceed.

      The other thing is read to your child, play with them, spend time with them. Love them. That is what they need at this phase. Reading to a child helps to build the idea that books are sources of knowledge and entertainment, and that is a core attribute that will contribute to your child’s success as an independent learner. Documentaries help, classics in movie and tv form help, but books are the backbone because they encourage learning in depth.

      You are already well ahead of the game, and will have the opportunity to start homeschooling from the very beginning, which I believe is the very best way to get started. Stay on the path you’re on. Things will work out :)

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