What does it even mean: unschooling?

Children come into the world burning to learn and genetically programmed with extraordinary capacities for learning. They are little learning machines. Within the first four years or so they absorb an unfathomable amount of information and skills without any instruction. They learn to walk, run, jump and climb. They learn to understand and speak the language of the culture into which they are born, and with that they learn to assert their will, argue, amuse, annoy, befriend, and ask questions. They acquire an incredible amount of knowledge abut the physical and social world around them. All of this is driven by their inborn instincts and drives, their innate playfulness and curiosity. Nature does not turn off this enormous desire and capacity to learn when children turn five or six. We turn it off with our coercive system of schooling.
Peter Gray, Free to Learn

I am very grateful to Peter Gray. It was his book, Free to Learn, that changed my whole thinking about education and learning and the needs of young children. Well, it was specifically this talk that really did that, but his book explained it all in much more depth. It has played a big role in the way we approach learning in our home at the moment – we pretty much unschool.

‘Unschooling’ is a bit of a weird term, because you end up referencing the very thing you’re avoiding…school. Some people go for the phrase ‘autonomous learning’ or ‘life learning’ but, whatever you call it, it ends up being learning and life without school or a schooled culture and way of thinking.

There’s already lots of decent explanations of unschooling out there like this one.  Here‘s a nice little YouTube clip from an unschooling mum who sums it up neatly at the beginning.

But the principles of unschooling generally follow nicely from what Peter Gray says above. Nature does not turn off the enormous inbuilt desire and capacity to learn when children turn five or six, and so, if allowed, children continue to learn and grow using these instincts and drives to discover and learn in just the same way from the age of five through to to eighteen. There doesn’t have to be set teachers, curriculum, tests, standards or requirements. They are little humans with an insatiable thirst for life, the world around them…and they grow from there.


Unschooled children are free to learn about anything that interests them, to the depth that compels them. They are free to lose themselves in subjects or activities that they are fascinated by, for as long or as little time as they would like. They are free to gain the skills that they need to get by in the world – whether that’s practical, emotional, social or knowledge based because when they need them, they’ll learn them (like they did with walking, talking and all the other skills they have already mastered). They are free to move their bodies as much as they would like, they are free to go to the toilet when they need, they are free to have down time when they want or need it. I personally feel it is very healthy for children to have these choices and freedom, as it is for adults.


In many way unschooling can actually be an incredibly wonderful thing when you get past how ridiculous it may sound at first!

Unschooling requires having a committed, loving, nurturing adult around (like the majority of parents, hopefully). They listen, watch and respond to their child and provide stimulating experiences for them, making sure they have any tools and equipment that they might need and being up for discussing and talking about life and all it brings up. In exactly the same way that a parent does this conventionally til the age of five in our culture, an unschooling parent simply continues with the same approach as their child gets older.


For example…if your three year old is really into Thomas the tank engine – you get hold of a train track and trains, don’t you? You might buy him Thomas the Tank engine magazines every now and again and get books on trains out the Library. You probably try to visit a train museum or go for a trip on a train because you know they’ll love it. (If you live in an area with trains that is, Shetland.. not so much). And three year olds can be absolute hives of information about Thomas and all things trains! Their finer motor skills sharpen while making tracks and their creativity and imagination soar while playing stories out. They listen to the story books being read over and over at bedtime. They start to recognise the names of Thomas and Henry and Gordon written in print. They are learning and growing.

It’s the same with our six year old unschooler. Mr 6 is massively into Lego at the moment, specifically Lego Ninjago. Consequently a good part his life at the moment consists of building with Lego. He loves it. And he’s good at it. He has practised a lot. We have bought him Lego sets for Christmas and birthday, and any that come up cheap online. He uses his imagination and creativity. He develops his fine motor skills and his engineering skills. He experiments and perseveres and creates. He and his Dad download free instructions to other sets that they build together using pieces we already have. He is very good at reading and understanding those instruction booklets. Mr 6 often spends his ‘money bank’ money on the Ninjago magazines – and there’s lots in there too. He want to read the comic book sections of the magazines so he does, with help from us. He wants to do the puzzles and games, he wants to find out about the new character that he’s got that month with the magazine. He’s getting better at reading the words, following the instructions, completing the puzzles, using a pen with increasing skill. His learning in this area of life is motivated from his desire to know all about and wallow in all things Ninjago!

In fact this week, Mr 6 announced he had his sights set on buying the Lego Ninjago movie (£7) and the Destiny’s Bounty Lego set (£75) from the movie. This had meant lots of chat about saving money, thinking of ways to earn money, counting up his money in his money bank etc. Tomorrow he is proudly heading to Tesco to buy his new DVD having worked hard and earned his £7 and he has planned a family movie night in the evening with popcorn and hot chocolate to celebrate. Learning in action via Ninjago (thanks, people at Lego!)


Basically Mr 6’s learning happens in the same way that his 4 year old sister learns – either from his need to learn something or his desire to learn it. It also happens from the people around him, the conversations he has and the life happenings that he experiences. There’s always plenty of learning going on.

Interestingly, Mr 6 recently told me he’d like to learn to write the letters of the alphabet. So for the past week, we have spent about 5-10 minutes each day practising one or two letters from a wipeable workbook (shock horror!) that he had been given a while back. But that’s the great thing about unschooling too. Unschoolers can use workbooks, take exams, go to college and university. They can choose to do any of these things if it serves them well and gets them to where they’d like to be. They are figuring out their path in this world and the world around them is their resource.


Ultimately, unschooling is about trusting in your child’s abilities to learn and grow and gain skills and knowledge through the desires and drives they have been born with, within a family that loves, respects and encourages them along the way.


Is school perfect? No. Is unschooling perfect? No. Unschooling isn’t the best way to do family life and learning and education – it’s simply a different way to do family life and learning and education. We all have to figure out a way of life that suits us and our family, don’t we?

So there we go. Unschooling (for us) in a nutshell and how it looks in our house!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s