What is unschooling?
Throughout England, around 60,000 children are home educated, and each family has its own approach to home learning.
Some prefer to ‘homeschool’ – in other words, follow a relatively fixed timetable and curriculum – while others take a more flexible approach informed by their children’s interests.
This child-led take on home education is often known as unschooling.
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What unschooling means
Unschooling may sound like giving up on education altogether and letting children run amok, but this isn’t the case. Kids can learn as effectively through unschooling as through a more formal approach to home education.
‘In a nutshell, unschooling is learning through living,’ says Lizi Gambell, mum to Rufus, 11, and Otis, eight, and author of The Unschooled Life.
‘Rather than following a set curriculum, unschooling is unrestricted learning following a child’s stage of development and personal curiosity, in their own time.’
Unschooling is not the same as de-schooling. De-schooling is a period of ‘cooling off’ after a child has been deregistered from school, where the focus on learning is completely suspended.
This often happens if a child has had a bad experience at school and needs time to recover and regroup by relaxing and playing before resuming any kind of educational activities.
There are a number of reasons why families might choose to unschool their children, including:
- A desire for their child to follow their own interests
- The flexibility to learn in different, often more practical and creative ways, and at a pace dictated by the child
- Wanting a more relaxed approach that could potentially reduce tension between parent and child over getting work done
- The desire for siblings to learn together, rather than have their own separate lessons
- The ability to plan flexibly day by day instead of sticking to a fixed timetable and curriculum
- Reducing the pressure on a child who struggled academically or socially at school
‘We took Rufus out of school in Year 1, as he’d never engaged with the experience,’ says Lizi. ‘He was terribly upset every morning when we took him in, and we could see him regressing and turning inward.
‘We decided unschooling was best for us after trying a few approaches to home education and failing at each one, getting frustrated with the curriculum content, the routine, and each other.
‘We’re a very creative and outward bound family, and sitting at the table for hours focusing on workbooks isn’t how we roll. We like practical forms of learning and to get stuck into real-life experiences.’
Other benefits include helping your child develop skills such as independent thinking and problem-solving, none of the pressure of tests like SATs, and more time together as a family.
Indeed, in one study, 75% of adults who were unschooled said they’d benefited from the time and freedom to discover and pursue their own interests
You can also learn alongside your child, discovering new topics and, when something challenges you, finding out the answers together.
What do unschoolers do?
The very nature of unschooling means that every family will have a different way of approaching it based on their children’s ages, their interests, their strengths and weaknesses, and the rhythm of family life, but the one common factor is that the parent is not expected to be their child’s teacher.
The child is in control of their learning, and the parents’ aim is to facilitate that.
‘I would say our approach is 90% led by the children’s interests and focus, with a bit of facilitating and lots of encouraging along the way,’ Lizi says.
‘We go to lots of interesting places and if the boys are inspired, we open the topic up further, researching around the subject and facilitating projects.
‘We just go with the flow until the interest dries up, exploring lots of different subjects within the context of a topic, including history, science, language and geography.’
It might be, for example, that a trip to a natural history museum inspires your child’s interest in dinosaurs. The topic could include looking at the timeline of the Jurassic age, discovering how fossils are made, finding out what dinosaurs ate and why, writing a poem about dinosaurs, building a junk model T Rex, and so on.
Although formal learning is kept to a minimum, most unschooling families do make sure that English and maths are covered, sometimes in a more structured way than other subjects.
‘We read each day and we do some maths, although most of our maths takes place through daily activities like cooking,’ Lizi explains. ‘But as soon as it appears too much like schooling, the boys tend to shut off completely.’
Making the most of what’s around
Many home educators, including unschoolers, make great use of learning opportunities outside the home, such as museums and galleries, forests and woodland, libraries and home education groups.
‘Nature is one of our biggest resources. We walk our dogs every day, swim in rivers and explore nature trails,’ Lizi says.
‘Travel has given us so much, too: whenever we plan a trip, the boys have a say in where to stay and how to get there. We compare the places we visit to other climates and cultures to see how the world differs.’
Unschooling also means that you can take advantage of visiting places and doing activities at quiet times, while most children are at school.
‘Places like swimming pools, climbing centres, ice rinks, horse riding and sailing groups often offer discounts for home educating families,’ adds Lizi.
Is unschooling legal?
One hundred percent yes. Although children must receive a suitable education from ‘compulsory school age’ (roughly speaking, the start of the term following their fifth birthday), this doesn’t have to be at school.
Of specific interest to unschoolers is that although you have to make sure your child receives a full-time education, you’re not required to have a timetable or set hours during which learning will take place, or observe school hours, days or terms. Neither do you have to follow any sort of curriculum.
You don’t need to do anything official to begin home educating, although the government advises that you inform your child’s school if you’re withdrawing them, or your local authority if your child hasn’t started school but you plan to home educate.
Some local authorities ask to visit home-educated children at home or in another place, or see an educational philosophy examples of their work, but although there are exceptions (for example, if there are safeguarding concerns), you’re not obliged to let them.
Things to think about if you’re considering unschooling
Unschooling may seem a blissful, stress-free approach to home education, but before you commit to it, there are a few things to bear in mind.
How much do you need a set routine? Although some families thrive on spontaneity and every day being different, if you prefer life to run to a schedule, unschooling may not be right for you.
What do you do for work? If you have one parent who doesn’t work, or a job that’s flexible (and possibly allows you to work from home), unschooling may work well. But if you work set hours, you may prefer a more fixed schedule approach to home education.
Are you a homebody or an outdoorsy type? Most unschoolers spend a lot of time getting out and about, whether that’s to home education groups, attractions like museums and galleries, or exploring the great outdoors.
Are your children good at entertaining themselves? They need to be able to keep themselves occupied if you’re doing your own work, keeping on top of chores or just need some time to yourself.
Do you get upset about other people’s opinions? Unschooling can seem somewhat radical to some people, so friends and family may have strong opinions on what you’re doing, especially in the initial stages.
How much do you enjoy family time? Because unschooling is very much child-led, you’ll spend a lot of time with your children, facilitating their learning – and it's normal to have days when everyone is on top of each other and tempers fray.
Are you and your partner on the same page? ‘Discuss your thoughts on what unschooling means to you before you start. If you and your partner have different opinions of learning, you could be setting yourselves up for tremendous pain and frustration,’ explains Lizi.
Are you prepared for ups and downs? As with every aspect of parenting, unschooling isn’t always easy. ‘At times, I’ve wanted to give up, but then a new day begins,’ Lizi says.
‘If you feel compelled to unschool, go for it hook, line and sinker. There are no rules, so you have to write the book, and you can make it a story of hope, fun, and most importantly, your own learning adventure.’