what is unschooling?

What is Unschooling Compared to Traditional Homeschooling?

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Last Updated on December 7, 2023 by Sarah McCubbin

When homeschoolers talk about what is unschooling compared to traditional homeschooling, there is often some confusion. Does unschooling mean not doing school? Is it even legal? Let’s talk about these questions and more.

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I distinctly remember the first time someone who was unschooling. I had been homeschooling for just a couple of years when I met my friend L. Since I knew NOTHING about unschooling, I asked her all kinds of questions.

Her girls did a few workbooks here and there, took classes at the local co-op and at the nature center, read a TON of book and watched educational movies. Mixed in there was a lot of “life skills” that happened as they learned to cook, garden, observe the natural world and follow their own interests at their own pace.

None of it really looked the way I imagined “homeschooling” should look. It was FAR too relaxed. Honestly, I worried that her girls might not be well prepared for life! (Nice of me right?!) As it turned out…I was wrong!

When L. needed to send her girls to public school in middle school, they transitioned beautifully and ended up graduating with the top students in their classes. Not having exposure to traditional homeschooling…or traditional book work didn’t prevent them being successful at all! 

Now that I have been homeschooling for 16+ years, I find myself appreciating the unschooling approach more and more and weave it into our own home education. It’s truly wonderful to enjoy more relaxed homeschooling with my young children in a way that I didn’t realize was possible so many years ago! 

what is unschooling

What Is Unschooling?

The definition of unschooling is a type of homeschooling that is a learner-centered approach to education, fundamentally different from conventional schooling.

Instead of following a homeschool curriculum and structured learning environment, unschooling allows children to follow their own curiosity and interests to learn through life experiences, household responsibilities, personal interests, and curiosity-driven exploration.

The term “unschooling” was first coined by the American educator John Holt in the 1970’s. Holt started his career as a traditional school teacher but gradually changed what he believed about education over many years.

He became a vocal supporter of the idea that a child’s education is best achieved when they are allowed to follow their own interests. Holt believed that the fear of failure was one of the strongest inhibitors of education and that unschooling was the solution to remove that fear and encourage learning to thrive. 

How Unschooling Works in Practice

In an unschooling household, there’s no typical school day. Children might explore nature, conduct experiments, engage in artistic activities, or help with family tasks – all seen as valuable learning experiences

Parents are facilitators rather than traditional teachers. They provide resources, support, and guidance, helping children explore their interests deeply. Activities range from reading and writing about a passion to hands-on projects like building a computer or starting a small business.

Finding the right balance between guidance and autonomy is crucial. It involves trusting the child’s innate capacity to learn and providing structure as needed.

what is unschooling

How to Get Started with Unschooling

1. Evaluate WHY you are homeschooling. 

7 Steps: How To Start Homeschooling Today

2. Read books and other resources to help you understand this philosophy better.

3. Ask Your Kids What They Want to Learn About

4. Write Down a Few Ideas of Ways They Can Learn

5. Get Started! 

What is unschooling

What Are the Different Types of Unschooling Homeschoolers?

Unschoolers Vs Radical Unschoolers

As with anything, unschoolers are not all alike. There are varying “extremes” in unschooling. 

Normal unschooling follows a child led approach to learning. They may use some traditional learning resources such as textbooks, unit studies, classes and more if it facilitates the child-led learning.

They may have certain activities they require (games, reading, hands on activities) that facilitate different subjects being learned. This gives the day a loose structure without the rigor of traditional homeschooling.

Radical unschoolers choose to forgo that loose structure to let kids learn through the course of daily life. So children and teens in this model don’t have a framework of tasks to complete because learning is happening naturally. They believe that children and teens will naturally learn what they need when they need it. 

In its most extreme form, parents will have few if any requirements for their kids…no chores, no limits on screens and no requirements to participate in family activities.


What is Unschooling Vs. Traditional Homeschoolers

Both unschooling and traditional homeschoolers must follow all state laws. Beyond that, these forms of education diverge.

Unschoolers create their own educational path while following their children’s interests. Conversely, traditional homeschoolers will usually use a curriculum for each of the required subjects. Traditional homeschooling looks quite a bit like school at home.

Unschoolers vs Relaxed Homeschoolers

​Unschoolers and relaxed homeschoolers may look very similar in practice. They may take a similar approach to how they spend their time and how they fill their days. 

However, an unschooling family will fundamentally be focused on providing a real world education that follow’s their children’s interests. 

Relaxed homeschoolers may or may not be actual unschoolers. Relaxed homeschoolers may choose to have parent chosen curriculum as the foundation for their subjects but allow the students flexibility in when, how and where they complete it. A relaxed homeschooler may follow unschooling…or they may follow Charlotte Mason, Montessori, Waldorf or be eclectic! 

Unschooling vs Public or Private School

Unschooling is completely the opposite of private or the public school system in its educational philosophy. Public and private schools follow a prescribed grade level curriculum that teaches subjects and material according to standards set by education officials. An individual child’s interests are largely overlooked except for a few extracurricular or elective options in high school. Failing is never considered a good thing in these school environments! 

On the other hand, unschooling allows homeschooled students to use an alternative approach that is child led in their learning. And in this type of learning, when children fail, it is viewed as a learning moment and not an actual failure. Failure is viewed as a building block of learning.

Unschooling in High School

Families that choose to unschool during high school can definitely do so. However, many families choose to add some math and language arts curriculum if their teens plan to go to college or trade school. The goal of self-directed learning is that young people are prepared for whatever comes next…even formal education! 

​If your family chooses to unschool during high school, your teen will still need a transcript upon graduation. There are a variety of ways to document the learning they have done. I highly recommend the book “Setting the Record Straight” by Lee Binz if you need to plan and document courses creatively!! 

Get Your 4 Year Homeschool High School Plan in Order!

Pros and Cons of Unschooling

​Before a family decides whether unschooling is right for them, it is important to consider the pros and cons. In my opinion, one of the best things about homeschooling is that you can actually choose to use different philosophies of learning for different subjects and at different stages of development. For example, you might find that the best way to explore science is through unschooling but that Math makes more sense with an actual curriculum. A child’s individual learning style can be supported with this flexible unschooling journey. 

Pros of Unschooling

There are MANY benefits of unschooling for parents and children. First, it provides a way for natural learning to happen without pressure to conform to a set curriculum. Families can choose to learn through field trips, books, movies…even video games. The most important thing in unschooling is that a child’s interests are being supported  much more than in a traditional classroom.

  • Children develop the ability to direct their own learning, an invaluable skill in the rapidly changing modern world.
  • Without the constraints of standardized curricula, unschooling allows creativity and innovation to flourish.
  • Unschooling often leads to greater emotional well-being, as children feel respected and valued for their individuality.
  • Many unschooled children have gone on to achieve remarkable success, excelling in various fields due to their highly developed self-motivation and passion-driven expertise

Cons of Unschooling

Unschooling hinges on the parent’s ability to loosely guide their children and provide access to learning tools and resources based on their interests. However, if a parent does not do this and provides no oversite, then unschooling has the potential to become a form of educational neglect. While not the norm, there are families that identify their homeschooling as unschooling when they are actually doing nothing at all and their children are not learning or making any kind of meaningful progress.

  • Critics often point to potential gaps in socialization. However, unschoolers frequently engage in community groups, sports teams, and other social settings.
  • There’s concern about meeting traditional academic standards. Unschoolers may approach these benchmarks differently, but they often excel when motivated by personal interest in a subject.
  • Legalities vary widely by region, with some places having stringent homeschooling laws that can complicate unschooling.

Transition to Higher Education or Workforce

Unschooled children often transition smoothly into higher education or careers, equipped with self-motivation and a love for learning. Unschooling instills a mindset of lifelong learning, essential in an ever-evolving world.

Sarah McCubbin, founder of Ten Minute Momentum, is dedicated to helping parents confidently parent their kids by teaching life skills, social skills and leadership skills. As a child she was the kid that never quite fit in and is on a mission to help others understand the building blocks we all need to be successful adults. She lives in Ohio with her husband Mike, and 9 kids ranging in age from 5 to 21 where they use homeschool, private school and public schools for their kids education!

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