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The Unschooling Philosophy – Is It Right For Your Child?

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Children are natural learners — curious and full of wonder. They soak in the world around them, learning to talk, walk and play as they travel through their early lives. 

But where does this curiosity go? Why do some kids grow up to dread learning?

If you ask an unschooler, they’ll tell you it’s because the rigidness of traditional school strips many children of their early love of learning. 

Unschooling is a style of homeschooling that trusts children to guide their own education. And this child-centered approach is gaining momentum, changing how many families are choosing to educate their children.

What is unschooling?

Unschooling is child-directed learning. There are no worksheets or lessons that must be completed, and no set curriculum. What a child learns, and how they choose to learn it, is completely up to them.

If you are unschooling, there are no lesson plans to follow, no tests to complete and no grades to share. Your child does not need to reach any certain grade level by any set time. Children can learn at their own pace, following their interests and passions wherever they take them. It’s not recreating school at home. It’s ditching the concept of school altogether, in favor of a more cooperative at-home learning environment.

This can feel really odd at first. And be difficult to trust. How is your child going to learn anything if you don’t make them? No kid is going to choose to learn algebra if it’s not required, right?

As it turns out, this doesn’t have to be the case. With you as their guide, your child will learn what they need to succeed in their chosen path. And that may or may not include algebra.

If your six-year-old has a love of space and rockets, for example, you may find yourself discussing physics concepts such as gravity and acceleration far before these topics would come up in school. Keep these discussions age-appropriate, but if your child wishes to really dig into it, don’t hold back. When a child is engaged and interested in a topic, they can often grasp these complex topics easily!

Who potentially benefits from unschooling?

Proponents of unschooling believe any child can benefit from this interest-led educational philosophy, if their family decides it’s the right choice for them. 

Unschooling takes the pressure off of children to perform, leaving them able to fully embrace their interests and not worry about the rest. This means — no matter what their unique learning needs are — unschooling gives you freedom to find the right strategies that will help your child learn exactly how they need to. 

Benefits of unschooling

1. Children are able to work at their own pace

This is great for both gifted students and those struggling in a traditional school setting. 

If your child excels in math, but needs extra help in reading, you have time to focus on the right topics within these subjects without the stress of feeling “bored” or “behind”.

2. Kids have more time to follow their own interests or spend with family

Children aren’t simply memorizing facts for a test. They’re gathering useful knowledge that can stay with them forever. And when they want to dig deeper into a topic, they can. There’s no busy work keeping them from their passion projects. How they spend their time is completely up to them.

Unschooled child building a tower out of Jenga blocks

3. Children keep their natural curiosity and love of learning

Being forced to learn something you care little about can feel disheartening. There’s so much to learn in the world, and every interest has value. When children are able to make their own educational choices they stay invested in learning and gain confidence in themselves. They feel important because their needs are being respected. And this keeps the momentum going.

Challenges of unschooling

1. Your child may not meet grade-level standards

Because your child is creating their own path, they may seem to fall behind their traditional school peers. Some unschoolers do not learn to read until age seven, or even as late as 10. Others may not go far beyond basic math. This could become a problem if they choose to re-enter the public school system at a later date, though many of these skills can be learned quickly with the right motivation and guidance. 

2. Parents need to stay involved

As the parent of an unschooler, you’re not teaching, but rather supporting, your child’s learning. This means you need to stay on top of their interests, providing resources to help them along their chosen path. Often you’ll learn alongside your child, so you can better facilitate their learning. 

Though this can be achieved in a variety of ways, it certainly helps to have a flexible workday or a stay-at-home parent to join the child on their learning journey.

3. Fielding questions from concerned family and friends

School is such an ingrained institution that it is difficult for many people to understand unschooling. Your family and friends may wonder what you spend all day doing. How are your kids learning? This can be frustrating for both you and your children. But as you find your groove, it becomes easier to answer these questions.

What research says about unschooling

Unschooling hasn’t been studied extensively, but Research Professor Peter Gray, Ph.D has been leading the charge. And as unschooling becomes more popular, more research will likely emerge.

The most cited research on unschooling is a survey of unschooling families conducted by Gray in 2011. Dr. Gray put out a call for unschooling families, with 232 eligible families responding.

This research is largely positive. But it’s important to remember that the families who chose to complete Gray’s survey are likely happy to spread the unschooling love.

Keeping that in mind, these families shared the benefits they’ve experienced while unschooling their children. More family time, happier (and less stressed) children, freedom of schedule and learning advantages were the benefits cited most often by the surveyed unschooling families. 

Of course, these surveyed families also face challenging moments. The most common challenges involved going against cultural and societal norms. Other people are likely to question your decision to unschool. And you may even have a lot of inner work to move past your own thoughts on the importance of school. It’s crucial to work through your own doubts to fully embrace this choice.

How do unschooled children turn out? 

This is often one of the biggest concerns for families considering unschooling. Will my kid be successful in life if they don’t attend school?

In another survey from Dr. Gray, over 83% of adults who unschooled went on to pursue some amount of higher education. Many of these grown unschoolers went into Bachelor programs, having little to no trouble with college admissions. It’s common for unschoolers to pursue dual enrollment courses in their teens, which can help with the transition to college.

Many grown unschoolers have a clear idea of what career they wish to pursue, giving them the motivation they need to succeed, despite other challenges. If you’re considering unschooling, it can be beneficial to join some online unschooling groups and read through other families’ journeys. This is definitely the path less traveled, but certainly worth exploring if it interests you.

Unschooled child learning and exploring outside

The difference between unschooling and deschooling

While reading about unschooling, you’ll probably run across the term deschooling. But what in the world does that even mean?

Deschooling is the process of breaking out of a school mindset. And it takes time. The longer your child has been in school, the longer you need to spend deschooling. The best way to describe deschooling: let every day feel like summer break. 

There’s no reason to wake up early, no assignments to complete, no academics to be studied. And for a while, this may look like hours of video games. You may think your child will never choose to learn again. But if you wait it out, that curiosity will come back. And then unschooling can begin.

Deschooling is an important process for you as well, especially if you grew up attending public school. It can be difficult to trust the process, your child or yourself after years of being told what to do and how to think. Long after your child has adapted to unschooling, you’ll still be deschooling. That’s just part of the journey. 

Designing the right homeschool curriculum for your child

Unschooling is becoming more popular as homeschooling rates increase, but it’s not the norm. This is what creates many of unschooling’s biggest challenges.

If you feel unschooling may be the right choice for your family, give it a try! Allow your child to explore their interests in brand new ways. 

Have a video game-loving child? Create true excitement around math learning with Prodigy Math Game and create true excitement around math learning. Having fun can make all the difference. Enjoy the journey with your child and make learning fun today!

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