Holistically Organized Multidisciplinary Endeavors Farm

What is Unschooling?

A lifestyle, philosophy, or framework based on trust and the love of learning.
unschooled, what is unschooling?, home-farm.org, free to learn

What do you mean, Unschooling?  My friends and family generally have looks of confusion when I try to explain this “method of education.”  I am no expert, nor do I believe there is such a thing as an unschooling expert. We all do family and life in different ways, hopefully the way that works best for everyone in the family.   

My aim here is to condense some of the broader points that I have learned thus far.  Absorbing all that I can about this lifestyle has given me a new lens through which to view my children, my family, and my community.  And, it may be my public schooling background, but I feel like I get a better grasp on new concepts if I write them out. So here is my attempt at explaining unschooling, or self-directed education.

What Unschooling Isn't:

  • Entirely free-range children allowed to do whatever they want, whenever they want.
  • School at Home (including a chalkboard and assignments with due dates)
  • A set of strict rules, expectations, and dogma laid-out by some unschooled, evangelical guru.
  • Only for parents and families who have their “shit together.”
  • Un-educating or unparenting.

What Unschooling Is:

  • A paradigm shift (If you were raised with a public school mindset)
  • A lifestyle built on a love of learning. 
  • A mindset which holds that all people, children included, are free, autonomous beings.
  • A parenting style where engagement and trust are central to the relationship.
  • A set of beliefs, often contrary to popular culture, that children are naturally curious, and given the opportunities and support to do so, will lead themselves to learn all that they need.

How do you know that learning will happen outside of school?

Unschooling is essentially self-directed education.  There are several studies showing that self-driven learning is more effective and self-empowering than forced or coercive learning (1, 2).  We also know that humans are born with an immense capability to gather and use information from the world around them. They teach themselves to walk, to use a spoon, and get dressed.  Babies and toddlers are essentially unschoolers. They have a drive, a passion to explore, a curiosity to try new things and ask question after question to make sense of the world. 


Why then, do so many children seem to lack that curiosity, that drive for information and exploration in the early elementary years? Why do so many middle schoolers lack a passion and have fear and anxiety around school?  Why are so many teens stressed and depressed? For many, it may be compulsory schooling. Forced schooling can kill creativity, dampen curiosity, and hamper personal responsibility and self-direction (3, 4).

unschooling vs forced schooling, home-farm.org, what is unschooling

     The aim of unschooling is to hold onto that passion, to allow space for creativity and exploration, while fostering deep, connected relationships.  So, how do we facilitate a continued curiosity to learn outside of school? According to Gina Riley, of Self Determination Theory (5), these are the three psychological needs that must be present in order to foster self-motivation: 

  1. Competence – Growth in skills supports self-confidence.
  2. Autonomy – Choice and freedom create a sense of mastery of the self and the environment which supports independent and critical thinking, encourages intrinsic motivation and inspires confidence. 
  3. Relatedness – The desire to learn is increased when children feel secure and can authentically share enriching experiences. 

They don’t need us to teach them how to walk, or how to hold their spoon.  We do however provide encouragement and support to facilitate that learning.  We don’t force them to learn these life skills. We see them attempt these feats, offer suggestions and create a loving environment in which they can practice, and praise them when they succeed.  That is unschooling. The only difference is, they do it at home, with us. If they choose to go to school someday, be it elementary, high school, a votec, or a big university, they can. The distinction is choice.  We offer them ways to master skills and become competent learners. They have the freedom to make choices because they are autonomous beings. And we are always here in collaboration and connection to help guide and support them.  That is unschooling. 

Unschooling, as Defined by some of my Favorite Unschooling Mentors:

"A child-trusting, anti-oppression, liberatory, love-centered approach to parenting and caregiving. It is also creating and expanding communities of confident, capable people who understand how they learn best, and how to work collaboratively to learn and solve things."
Akilah S. Richards Unschooling, home-farm, what is unschooling
Akilah S Richards
Fare of the Free Child Podcast
"The difference with unschooling, I learned, is that there is no set curriculum and the learner - not the teacher - is the central figure. To make the leap to unschooling, I needed to stop thinking of myself as my children’s teacher, and instead become their follower."
kerry mcdonald, unschooling, home-farm.org, what is unschooling
Kerry McDonald
from her 2019 book, Unschooled
"Unschooling is the category of home-based education most compatible with trustful parenting. Defined most simply, unschooling is not schooling. Unschooling parents do not send their children to school, and at home they do not do the kinds of things that are done at school. They do not establish a curriculum, do not require particular assignments for the purpose of education, and do not test their children to measure progress. Instead, they allow their kids freedom to pursue their own interests and to learn, in their own ways, what they need to know to follow those interests. They believe that learning is a normal part of all life, not something separate that occurs at special times and places."
Peter Gray, unschooling, home-farm.org, what is unschooling?
Peter Gray
Free To Learn, 2013
"Unschooling is when everyday looks like a Saturday."
social media, home-farm.org, what is unschooling
Popular Meme
Social Media
"Unschooling is, at its most basic, about learning without a curriculum, without a teacher-centred environment, but sometimes the concept is easier to define by what it's not. It's not school-at-home, a re-creation of the school environment with a low student-teacher ratio around the kitchen table. And it's not about leaving your kids to fend for themselves, far from it. It is about creating a different kind of learning environment for your children. An environment based on the understanding that humans learn best when they are interested and engaged, and when they are personally involved and motivated. Creating an environment conducive to real learning is very difficult if someone else—parent, teacher, or curriculum developer—is dictating what a person should be learning at any given time. But drop that outside control over the child and learning truly comes naturally. As the late John Holt, educator and unschooling advocate, notes so succinctly, "Fish swim, birds fly; man thinks and learns." In addition, once you experience unschooling, you realize that there is much more to it than just dropping curriculum. It becomes a learning lifestyle—one where parents and children together enjoy exploring their interests and passions, learning along the way; one that evolves to inform your outlook on just about any situation that arises. Some like to call it life learning because what you are doing is learning through living. It revitalizes your relationships with your children. You will come to see that learning is often handicapped when confined to a classroom and a curriculum, but exciting and ubiquitous when children are given the freedom to explore their world. And soon you begin to glimpse the true nature of unschooling unfolding: living joyfully and passionately as a family, and building lifelong relationships in an environment where your children are free to discover and to grow into the people they were born to be. Unschooling is a unique process for each family, and for each child. That may be why explaining unschooling is so straightforward and so difficult at the same time; the implications of that simple phrase learning without a curriculum are profound and life changing."
Pam Larrichia, what is unschooling, living joyfully, home-farm.org
Pam Larrichia
From her introductory e-book, What is Unschooling?
While not an outright definition of unschooling, an aim for all who wish to be educated: “An education is the capacity to author your own life instead of merely accepting the one handed to you.”
Blake Boles
From his article, What Does it Mean to Be Educated?
“When pressed, I define unschooling as allowing children as much freedom to learn in the world as their parents can comfortably bear.”
John Holt
who coined the term
unschooling, what is unschooling?, home-farm.org

And lastly, my attempt at defining this philosophy in one sentence:

Unschooling is a framework for living our lives to their greatest potential; a lifestyle of intention, focused on the love of learning, including questioning everything.

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Hey.  I’m Alison; author, artist, and off-grid homeschooling mama of three.  I love painting, exploring the outdoors, and a hoppy IPA.  My partner and I work together to bring this website and blog to you.  We hope you enjoy!