How to Get Zen About Unschooling
There’s a new education trend taking shape that deviates from traditional teaching methods. It's called unschooling, and it's all about letting the student learn from experiences, rather than strict lesson plans.
While unschooling isn’t exactly new — it’s inspired by the teachings of John Holt, an educator and author whose books have been in print for 50 years — more demanding academics (and at younger and younger ages) have many parents seeking out this alternative option.
For most of us, traditional schooling is what we know and what makes us feel most comfortable. But some parents feel that it does not foster quality, lasting learning, or that it does not cater to their kids’ mental health very well. Plenty of these parents are turning toward the less traditional model in hopes of creating happier children who know themselves better. There’s definitely a lot to love about unschooling, but if you’re new to the model, embracing it may take some time, patience and learning a few tricks of the trade.
Here's how to get zen about unschooling.
Figure Out If Unschooling Is for You
First, the basics: What is unschooling, and is it for you? The method, also known as unstructured, child-led learning, may be unique, but its proponents believe it fosters a love of learning because it allows learning to occur naturally. It first gained traction among homeschoolers; however, other learning environments, such as cooperative schools, are also taking on the curriculum-free model. The about 60 global Sudbury Schools (which are accredited differently depending on location) embrace the model, allowing children to follow their own interests rather than a set curriculum.
There are some requirements for students — participating in the school’s justice committee (the heart of the democratic school model) and attendance, among them — but there are no tests or quizzes, no assignments and no homework. All forms of learning are seen as valuable, and all educational choices are made by the child. Even though Sudbury students aren’t forced to learn, well, anything, there is evidence that shows they go on to lead well-rounded, successful lives and generally don’t have difficulty transitioning into college or a chosen career path.
Sudbury students go to college in high numbers, too — approximately 80 to 90 percent — and a high percentage later seek careers in creative arts or science, technology, engineering or math (STEM), as well as report being entrepreneurial. Overall, they report high levels of well-being, too, according to studies.
Talk to Other Parents Who Unschool
When you set out on the unschooling path, you’re likely to doubt yourself, even think: “What the hell was I thinking?” Talking to other parents about how they watched their unschooled child’s interests evolve and grow into deep learning experiences can be a helpful way to see the bigger picture and can keep you grounded.
Building a community of like-minded folks who support you is invaluable when following a path so different from the one you know. And let’s be honest, you’ll likely need these parents who’ve been in your shoes to help keep your anxiety in check.
Visit Other Places That Embrace Unschooling
When you’re finding your community, it’s a good idea to check out some schools or cooperatives to see how they function. Whether you have plans to unschool on your own, use co-ops, attend your local Sudbury school or seek other options, it can be helpful to see how kids embrace learning in a variety of ways in different atmospheres that all support child-led learning. It may provide better insight into how to best support your child, too, at the beginning of this new learning adventure.
Chat With Kids Who Have Experience Unschooling
One of the best ways to calm your nerves is to talk to kids who’ve made their own educational choices for some time. Right away, you may notice how articulate and confident they are. That’s because, without adults telling them exactly how to use their time, they’ve learned how to self-regulate, find engaging things to do, socialize and teach themselves many valuable lessons.
Caroline Chavasse, a mom and founder of Arts & Ideas Sudbury School in Baltimore, says chatting with unschooled kids was a game-changer for her. Her family visited both a more traditional school and one that practiced unschooling, and she found students at the latter to be more engaging and inviting, even offering to show her what they were currently learning.
While there are undoubtedly critics to such a radical shift from the traditional education model, there is also a lot of literature that supports unschooling and its positive impacts on learning, social-emotional competence, and overall mental health and happiness. If you want to feel good about the educational choice you make for your child, immerse yourself in the findings.
Holt’s books, such as “Growing Without Schooling,” and Peter Gray’s “Free to Learn” are packed with information, experiences and studies that show kids don’t necessarily need a desk and a teacher to learn difficult concepts. They are curious, driven and able to self-educate when provided an environment that encourages their own explorations.
Remember Your Own Experiences
When did you learn best? Was it from working on a handout or taking a test? Maybe. But many learners find they have difficulty remembering the bulk of what they were taught in a traditional school atmosphere. That’s because, when people (kids or adults) aren’t learning something they have an active interest in, they forget it quickly.
If you’re reading a book you love, watching a film that’s enjoyable to you, working on a project or drawing a picture you can’t get enough of, the skills you absorb are far more likely to stay with you for the long haul.
Adjust Your Expectations
When you’re new to unschooling, it can be hard to let your guard down and lean into the process. But you can’t expect to see the magic happen overnight. Sometimes, the process looks a lot like kids doing exactly what they want to pass the time, and you, as the parent, become uncertain about whether or not it’s a “good” use of their time.
But you have to get rid of the “good” versus “bad” mentality sooner or later because, in unschooling, it’s all seen as valuable. Yes, they might fall down a Lego rabbit hole or watch YouTube all day. They might do a lot of what looks like nothing. But understanding that their choices are serving a purpose for them, even if you don’t quite understand what that is, becomes an important lesson. The big picture is: They are finding unique interests; they are learning; and most importantly, they are understanding that their choices have value.
Look for the Silver Lining
Even if your kids aren’t learning math or don’t yet know how to read, think about the other major gains they are making. Ask yourself some very basic questions, such as, “Are they happy?” While in traditional schooling, we don’t look at mental health as part of the equation, unschooling is about nourishing the whole child, not just the academic part. While you let go of the curriculum, knowing that a happy kid makes a great learner is an incredibly important part of the experience.
Research shows that overstressed kids have greater difficulty learning, and some studies show long-lasting negative impacts on ones who have been forced into early academics. When in doubt, think about your child’s entire experience, not just what you fear they might be missing academically.
Tune Into Your Child’s Interests
Many parents turn to unschooling when they find their kids are no longer interested in things they once loved. They notice their children becoming bored, unmotivated or depressed. Even curious and interested learners begin to say they hate school the moment they begin elementary school. But because unschooling allows kids to see their own interests as valuable, whatever those interests may be, they really can’t go wrong.
It can be hard for parents to make this shift, but understanding that kids are gaining something from their own explorations is important. In fact, it’s the whole point of unschooling in the first place. Making those small choices that turn into bigger ones eventually become defining components of who they are. So, try and allow for that unlimited exploration, instead of stunting it.
Consider the Gains
While parents of unschoolers may worry about what their kids are missing by avoiding traditional school, there are tons they are getting in return. For one, typical schooling doesn’t lend itself to much socialization when kids spend most of their time sitting at desks. Likewise, their movement is limited, as well as their autonomy. But some parents of unschoolers say the gains, whether academic, social or emotional have been huge.
Mary Herrington of Charlotte, N.C., best-selling author of “From Stressed to Best: A Guide to Self-Directed Learning with Anxiety or Depression,” says unschooling saved her daughter’s life. Her daughter suffers from anxiety, which made her schooling experience traumatizing. “Unschooling allowed her the freedom to learn how she best needed, when she needed, as she needed,” Herrington says.
Stay Clear of Negative Talk
Going off the beaten path is not easy. You’ll get plenty of questions about your choice to go against the grain from concerned relatives and friends who are worried about your child. You might even get a rude comment or two. But staying clear of negative talk is important to help keep you sane.
You aren’t going to prove your decision is the right one to everyone (and really, you shouldn’t try). Instead, immerse yourself in watching all the interesting and unique ways your child is learning, build your own supportive network and remember not to let fear of the unknown stand in your way.
Think of Learning as Continuous
People often forget that learning doesn’t start and end with school. The process of learning begins from the time a child takes his or her first breath and then learns to crawl, walk, eat with a spoon and so on, into adulthood.
When you begin to think of learning as continuous, rather than something school-aged kids do from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., you won’t be as concerned with how children are using every moment of their precious time. They may have down days and days when they do a ton, both academically driven and otherwise. No matter what, the learning never stops.
Trust the Process
Getting zen about unschooling involves a great deal of trust. If you are constantly doubting that the organic learning is real — that it’s really happening — then your kids will feel that. But even as a Sudbury school founder and on-going staff member and parent for many years, Chavasse says doubt is “a traveling companion,” and getting zen is an unending process.
She has taught herself to make room for trust again and again, so that she can embrace the education model and allow space for kids to do the same and to simply be who they are. “I found I would rather learn about them and see who they are, then try to mold them into something I thought they should be,” she concludes. “They were interesting as they were. Why not enjoy?”