Unschooling works, too!

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Cherie Thomas

What is Unschooling?

Generally, people use the term to mean schooling without a curriculum. Earl Stevens, a columnist for The Home Education Magazine, says, "The standard curriculum exists in school because it is too much trouble to cooperate with each child in determining individual diets. It exists in homes primarily because it exists in schools."

He continues, "Many parents begin home schooling under the impression that they can only be successful by following some variant of the traditional public school curriculum in the home." That's certainly how we began. With a child-size table and a schedule for which subjects should be studied and when. But we learned that our children lost their excitement for learning that way. The less structure I imposed upon them, the more creative and absorbed they became in their self-directed learning.

What Do Unschoolers Do All Day?

A year ago, after being inspired by Kathie Christensen's talk on Unschooling in our support group, I announced to my children (then ages 9, 5, and 3) that I would like to try an experiment for a few months. I would no longer require any schoolwork of them. We would still read and discuss the scriptures every morning, after breakfast. And they would still have clean up tasks around the house. But the rest of the day was theirs to spend as their interests led them. I explained that I believed in them, in their ability to educate themselves. They both flashed me cautious smiles. I got the feeling they were starting to get excited. Their brains were spinning with all the ideas of what they wanted to do. I did ask that they not play with their friends until after lunchtime. And TV never was an option. (We have an old black and white which we leave unplugged in our unfinished basement, and bring up only 2 or 3 times a year.)

"I want whatever we do to be your choice," I said. "If you want to give up your music lessons, that's your choice, too. And the Great Brain projects. I don't want to do something just because it's my idea." But they chose to continue with violin and piano lessons. They chose to join a home school drama group and to try out learning Italian with three other neighborhood children.

So we do have some scheduled hours every week. But they are scheduled by the children, not by me. The rest of the time we spend largely reading, pursuing projects and hobbies, playing, and going on field trips to visit interesting places or people. I clip articles out of the newspaper every night and share them with the children in the morning. Sometimes the articles inspire us to write a poem or a story, sometimes they spark an idea for a Great Brain project. Sometimes, they lead us to make a call and ask if we can tour someplace or visit someone with an interesting hobby.

John Hold said, "A child's curiosity grows because of what it feeds upon. It is our job to help find the food." The "food" might be reference books, art supplies, craft materials, scientific tools, musical instruments, games of reasoning and logic. Unschooling families often find that just putting something out on the living room table, no explanation given, is all the child needs to start exploring and experimenting.

Another sure way to fire interest is for a parent to just start working on his own interests. When my husband decided to purchase a kit and make his own telescope, the children were irresistibly attracted to his working area each night when he came home from work. They wanted to watch, to help, to talk about it, to make suggestions. If it was interesting to him, it was interesting to them!

The fears and concerns I most often hear expressed when people talk about unschooling are: What about math? What about college? What if they go back to school? What if they don't do anything all day?

Some of you may be familiar with the Colfax family, with three sons who attended Harvard. They have done very well by academic standards and yet Micki Colfax says, We didn't have any set program that even remotely looked like a public school program until the boys were fifteen or seventeen...They did math when they were seventeen and eighteen, and it was easy for them when they were doing more complex math because the maturation had taken place...

"We did not sit around the kitchen table and do schoolwork ever. They sat down at the kitchen table and did schoolwork when they were fifteen or seventeen in order to prepare to go to college - once they decided they wanted to go to college. But there was never this notion of the fluttering mother hanging around and saying you have to finish that page before you go out!"

Raymond Moore, who has written many valuable books on home school, tells of a famous psychiatrist, J.T. Fisher, whose father insisted he go out and live on a ranch at the age of eight, before he began formal schooling. He returned from the ranch at age 13, and started schooling, beginning only then to learn to read and write. He finished 12 grades in three years. Fisher believed that any normal child with a wholesome home life could do the same.

An experiment in connection with Columbia University found that if mat is delayed - even as late as the seventh grade when children are more mature in their reasoning - they will learn faster and easier and will outdistance others. (See Home School Burnout p. 47)

In regard to going back into public school, Earl Stevens writes, "Unless a child has been doing nothing but hunting, fishing, and living off the land like Tarzan, it is usually an easy matter to prepare for school entry in a fairly short period of time. Some kids will need to do practically nothing. Others may need to do some calm background preparation in one or two specific areas."

What If My Child Doesn't Do Anything All Day?

This seems to be a problem mostly with children who have spent a long time sitting in classrooms and who are used to being told what to do from moment to moment. Most families find that the child needs time and a patient, loving parent to help them find their real interests and hobbies. (See Bibliography for details on Bringing Your Children Home - The Transition Period.)

How Can I Tell if Unschooling is Working?

This is the fun part. Observe your child. Is he happy? Is there a good feeling in your home? Is your child interested in the world and the things that people do? Does he feel good about his abilities? Does she like to explore places and ideas? Then it's working.

George Bernard Shaw said: "What we want to see is the child in pursuit of knowledge, not knowledge in pursuit of the child." But they need space, freedom, and time. I used to take the best time away from them. I insisted that we do math or science or history in the morning when they were fresh. Then, whey they were done with all of my "have to"s, they could work on projects or hobbies of their own choosing. They often didn't have much energy left for those things. By that time, they just wanted a break; to ride their bike, to swing on the swings, to get away from me or from the house.

Now I've given the mornings back to them. Our scheduled classes are mostly in the afternoons, and that prime time when the world is fresh and the day is new, is all theirs. And they delight me with the stories they write, the creations they sew, the games they invent.

How Important Is It To Give Children Freedom?

Harold McMurdy, a researcher for the Smithsonian Institute, surveyed the backgrounds of hundreds of outstanding people, and wrote that they had three things in common.

  1. Warm, responsive parents who minimize structure.
  2. Much more time with parents that with peers.
  3. Been given generous freedom, under parental guidance, to work out their own ideas and explore for themselves.

That freedom is so hard for us to give, sometimes. It is so hard to trust children to define their own education, and to recognize their play as their work. Nancy Wallace's book Child's Work, Susannah Sheffer writes that "...at first (Nancy) interrupted the children's doll play without giving much thought to how much this upset them. Gradually, she learned that they felt just as frustrated by those interruptions as Nancy felt when someone interrupted her while she was writing. In other words, Vita and Ishmael saw themselves as busy, as engaged in important work...Thus, her story is about...learning to recognize that the ordinary activities of childhood are as valuable and as deserving of respect as any important adult work...

"What if all children had time to experiment, to pursue their own work, to draw on the resources around them? Might we then discover that children's capacities, and their ability to find work they love and pursue it wholeheartedly, are greater that we ever dreamed?"

I believe in this. I believe in my children. Once in awhile, another child will say to my 10 year old, "I can say the timetables up to eight. You wanna hear 'em?" She says, "OK", and when they're done, she says, "Do you want to hear a song about Prime Numbers? It goes up to 101!" She is not interested in timetables right now, but she is interested in life. And someday, when timetables are useful or interesting to her, I have confidence that she will memorize them as quickly as she memorized the constellations or the names of the arches in our national parks.

How Do We Define Education?

Some months ago, Lynn Stoddard, one of the authors of the book Designing Education for Human Greatness, wrote a letter to the editor which appeared in the Deseret News. He wrote that the word "educate" comes from the Latin "educare", which means "to draw forth", not "to pour in", as we do in traditional curriculum-based education. This certainly fits with my new role as an "unschooling Mom". I am no longer a teacher so much as I am a partner in learning and growing with my children. My major role is to help draw forth the interests, the abilities, the potential inside them by providing tools and trust, resources and time, opportunities and freedom.

Good books about unschooling

  • Learning All the Time, by John Holt. $7.50 plus shipping. How children and do pick up the basics on their own, and the unfolding of the children's self-initiated education. Very interesting!
  • Better Than School, by Nancy Wallace. $9.95 plus shipping. How the Wallaces decided to teach their own, and the unfolding of the children's self-initiated education. Very interesting!
  • Child's Work, by Nancy Wallace. $10.95 plus shipping. A continuation of Nancy's first book, about how her children grew up and found work they love.
  • Free At Last, by Daniel Greenberg. $6.50 plus shipping. The story of the Sudbury Valley School, where students are given great freedom to learn what they want to learn, when they want to learn it. Nearly all of them gained entrance to the college of their first choice and/or become a solid, contributing member of their community.
  • I Learn Best by Teaching Myself, by Agnes Leistico. The author gives specifics on how they unschooled in their home.
  • The Teenage Liberation Handbook, How to Quit School and Get a Real Education, by Grace Llewellyn. Inspiring book for teenagers just starting home school or for parents of teenagers. Guides for planning your own curriculum, getting into college, finding apprenticeships. Firsthand accounts by many youth.
  • Plus, for an ongoing resource of unschooling experiences and insights, order the magazine Growing Without Schooling. ($25 per year, 6 issues.) Growing Without Schooling, 2269 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02140.

The preceeding were notes from a workshop taught at the UHEA Convention.

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