When our son turned three, my husband and I decided that instead of enrolling him in preschool, we would explore homeschooling. My husband was no stranger to the idea; he was homeschooled for almost six years. I was a product of Philadelphia Public Schools, with a mother who had me practically living at the library starting when I was about three.
While still not the norm, homeschooling is becoming more popular. The National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI) in Salem, Oregon, conducts research about homeschooled students and publishes a research journal, Home School Researcher. As of 2010, NHERI estimates that there are about 2.04 million children being homeschooled in the United States.
During my research into homeschooling, I came across the term “unschooling” or child-led learning. Parents who unschool do not have a curriculum. Skills in subjects such as grammar, math or science are learned through playing games, baking a cake or simply going to the grocery store. If a child becomes interested in, say, bugs, the parent will do whatever they can to facilitate learning more about bugs, be it going to a museum, getting books from the library, or searching for critters in the backyard. There are no statistics on the number of children being unschooled in the United States, but they are among the millions being homeschooled.
The late John Holt, author and educator, is considered the founder of this educational movement. He wrote How Children Learn, a book detailing his observations and interactions with children. In the preface, Holt says that that he wrote the book to oppose the two ways of looking at children: as “monsters of evil to be beaten into submission” or as “little two-legged walking computers whom we can program into geniuses.”
My husband and I already practice attachment parenting and gentle guidance, so unschooling was very intriguing to us.
I started devouring the articles on a parenting website, The Natural Child Project (NCP). The Director of NCP is Central Oregon resident Jan Hunt, who unschooled her now adult son, Jason. NCP is a child advocacy organization that provides information and advice on parenting topics such as education, gentle guidance, and attachment parenting. She is also an attachment parenting/unschooling counselor.
Hunt says when she was pregnant with her son, she and her husband talked extensively about how they would educate their child, knowing right away that public school was not an option for them.
“Children in public schools are under a lot of stress,” says Hunt. “They have to sit still all day which is quite frustrating for active children. They are told what to learn, and their interests are ignored.”
One day, she read an article in a free community magazine about Jon Holt and homeschooling. She then read How Children Learn and another book by Holt, Teach Your Own. She joined an unschooling group in British Columbia, where she was living at the time.
Unschoolers, says Hunt, trust their children to know when they are ready to learn and to choose what they are interested in learning. This is the environment in which babies acquire the skills to walk and talk.
“No one worries that a baby will be too lazy, uncooperative or unmotivated to learn these things,” says Hunt.
Corvallis resident Mary Gold took her son, Conor, out of public school in the 4th grade. It was never a good fit, she says, and he struggled with both the classwork and the classroom environment. Not wanting to recreate school at home, she started “relaxed, eclectic” homeschooling.
“It took only a few months before I realized that my attempts to teach were getting in the way of his natural desire to learn. It was then that we started unschooling,” says Gold.
Gold saw her son blossom. In just a few months, he was reading, writing and making improvements in all of the skills he was struggling with in public school and during their brief time with semi-structured homeschooling.
Philadelphia resident Brittany McCollum unschools her son, who will be five in October. McCollum is a certified birth doula and breastfeeding counselor. She attended public schools and remembers many times throughout her childhood feeling like too much time was spent disciplining distracted students and assigning busy work.
“[My husband and I] have always been amazed by the developments that naturally occur as children blossom at the most basic level,” says McCollum. “A large part of my reason for homeschooling is to further this natural progression of development without hindering it with standards and competition.”
Her reason for going the unschooling route is simply to have more time with her son.
“Familial relationships form the most basic foundation for a confident, independent person and the time spent exploring the world with my son allows us to know one another intimately while navigating the challenging aspects of close relationships,” says McCollum.
Spending time with family and friends of all ages, and learning skills using her son’s interests as reference points, McCollum says she and her husband feel that unschooling allows for the most freedom to enjoy all that the world has to offer while encouraging a hands-on, experiential education.
Reactions from family and friends have been varied for McCollum. In response to questions, she has learned not to list every activity they do or all the groups they are a part of. It takes a long time to build confidence in taking a path most do not tread. One question she often gets asked is how will her son learn math, as if this were the one thing that must be learned inside a classroom.
“Math is all around us, from weighing our apples at the grocery store, to figuring out how many pizzas 8 people will require, to building a hermit crab cage,” says McCollum. “I point out to people how frequently they use all those concepts they learned in school and then remind them that they could learn them by doing those things first, as opposed to sitting in a classroom and then having to learn where to apply them.”
Hunt’s parents also had serious doubts about her parenting approach, especially her father.
“My dad was an immigrant from Russia and had to quit school in the 9th grade to work,” says Hunt. “From my perspective, I thought that was great because he learned so much more by working. He had a wonderful business sense and was successful in every type of work he did. But he always regretted not finishing high school. So it was hard for him to understand the concept of unschooling.”
Gold said it was difficult to explain to family and friends the difference between homeschooling and unschooling, but she never got any negative feedback.
“I was happy, my kids were happy and thriving. So they couldn’t really argue with the results.”
There are misconceptions about homeschooling in general, but unschooling is an even more alien concept, so assumptions abound.
“The [overall] misconception is that we do nothing, that we’re irresponsible, let our children run wild and don’t care about their education,” says Hunt. “It’s actually just the opposite. Unschooling parents care very deeply about their children’s education and that’s why we don’t trust their education to anyone else.”
People often wonder how unschooling parents measure the progress of their children. How do you know when your child has mastered a skill? In an article entitled “How do Unschooling Parents Know Their Child is Learning?”, Hunt says it’s simply by direct observation.
“Any parent of a toddler can certainly tell us how many numbers her child can count to, how many colors he knows — not through testing, but through many hours of listening to his questions and statements. In unschooling, this type of observation continues on into higher ages and more complex learning.”
Hunt says at one point, she knew her son Jason was making improvements in his reading, but, as far she knew, was not able to read fluently. One evening she told him she would not be able to read to him because she was not feeling well; he told her he’d read to her instead and read the entire book without a hitch.
“It’s when they need the skill that it’s easiest to learn and the most natural,” says Gold. “Both of my children learned to read by being read to, looking at books, asking questions and playing with letters and words. Grammar also comes from reading and listening to the language as it is spoken. Reading and writing online with games, chats and various forums has greatly helped with writing and comprehension.”
So what about socialization? McCollum believes that socialization doesn’t just happen between a couple dozen six-year-olds in a classroom together.
“Socialization, and, in my opinion, a healthier form of it, happens all day, every day when one is out in the world. My son, at four years old, is comfortable talking with people ranging from 12 months to 12 years to 80 years old. This is something that comes from him knowing that everyone has something to offer at every age and through him being encouraged to recognize that and interact.”
In case there is any doubt, unschooling is legal. Like every state, Oregon requires homeschoolers of all stripes to take tests to make sure they are exhibiting “satisfactory progress in academic areas”; children are tested before the end of grades 3, 5, 8 and 10. But, without traditional educational materials and curriculums, is it a challenge for unschoolers to meet those demands? Gold says definitively, no.
“I have not yet met an unschooler that does not meet the state requirements easily,” she says.
Because they live in Pennsylvania, McCollom and her husband will have to declare their decision to homeschool their son in a year, and submit portfolios in another three years.
“I don’t believe it will be an issue for him to perform ‘at grade level’ because his exposure to subjects such as science, math and reading is woven so thoroughly into everything he does,” she says.
In 2007, Gold started organizing the annual LIFE is Good Unschooling Conference. At the time, there were no conferences specifically for unschooled families anywhere in the Pacific Northwest. For four days, there are presenters, chats, “funshops,” concerts, dances, movies and games.
“Unlike traditional homeschooling conferences, there are no curriculum vendors and no emphasis on traditional academics,” says Gold. “We try to be a community of learners supporting and enjoying one another.”
The next conference will be May 24–27, 2012, Memorial Day weekend, at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Vancouver, Washington. For more information, visit their website at www.lifeisgoodconference.com.
Looking back, I realized that my son learned his alphabet by asking what the letters were on our moving boxes. My son’s experience and all the stories I’ve heard are all proof that children can learn in unconventional ways. I believe that unschooling is an equally viable path for a child’s education.