Unschooling – the 101, the lowdown, the scoop

This post was the first one I wrote, on August 11, 2010.   For those who may just be joining us on this blog, I thought it worth revisiting.

But what do you do all day?   You mean the kids can just do whatever they want?  What about learning math?  How do you know if they’re learning what they need to know?
These are the most common questions I get when I tell someone we are unschooling and then try to explain what that means.   It often feels like I am trying to describe the ocean to someone who has spent their entire life in the desert.

What do we do all day?  We live our lives, whatever that might be on a given day.
You mean the kids can just do whatever they want?  More or less, yes.
What about learning math?   What about it?
How do you know if they’re learning what they need to know?  I know because they are happy, functioning children who are handling themselves in the world with ease.

I know these are not the answers people are looking for, but in all honesty they are the only answers I can give.   I asked Ben today how he knows the way from Barnes & Noble to our building.   He said, “I learned it.”   I said, “How did you learn it?  You never had a lesson about it.”   He said, “I learned it because we do it all the time.”   Precisely.    Why are we so caught up on this idea that education and learning is something ‘done’ to us or ‘given’ to us, or that we must go to a particular place to ‘get’?     We learn because we live in the world.  If we want to bake a cake and we read the recipe, pretty soon we are learning about 1/2 cups and 1/3 cups and any number of other measurements.   We learn it because we want to bake the cake, not because someone said that at age ‘x’ you must know about fractions and measurements.

So what is unschooling?   It is learning the way nature intended.  Organic learning.  Learning everything the same way kids learn to walk and talk.  Can you imagine if someone decided kids all needed to walk and talk at 12 months, and developed a step by step curriculum that became compulsory for all families.?  We’d have millions of chair-bound, mute kids who never learned because they weren’t allowed to do it on their own, through trial and error, some at 8 months and some at 2 years.    Sound ridiculous?   If so, why can we trust that kids will learn to walk and talk, fully accepting that some will take longer than others to do so, and then insist that it’s not possible for kids to learn anything else without formal instruction?  Without a curriculum and someone telling them at what age they must learn any given piece of knowledge?

Unschooling is about seeing your child as an individual, not an age, and trusting them.   It is about answering all their questions and not worrying when they don’t have any.   It is about seeing the value in rest as well as in motion.

I will end with a quote from the great John Holt, in his book Teach Your Own:

“Of course, a child may not know what he may need to know in ten years (who does?), but he knows, and much better than anyone else, what he wants and needs to know right now, what his mind is ready and hungry for. If we help him, or just allow him, to learn that, he will remember it, use it, build on it. If we try to make him learn something else, that we think is more important, the chances are that he won’t learn it, or will learn very little of it, that he will soon forget most of what he learned, and what is worst of all, will before long lose most of his appetite for learning anything.”

About Amy

Amy Milstein was born and raised on a farm in Indiana, but after 20+ years considers herself a full-fledged New Yorker. She is married with two kids, who do not go to school but are instead life learners. This means they learn by living in the world (real life ) instead of hearing about it and simulating it in a classroom. With her family, Amy loves to travel, read, watch movies, write, sew, knit - the list is endless.
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