Speaking from Experience: An Honest Discussion about Unschooling

Ever wonder what unschooling is actually all about? Join me as I give an honest review of what this homeschooling approach was really like for our family.

Unschooling can be a great way to educate, but it's not for everyone.

Mention the word “unschooling” to someone in your homeschool group, and you’re likely to get one of two extreme reactions- elation or disdain. When it comes to this controversial homeschool approach, it can be very difficult, indeed, to find a middle-of-the-roader.

From the very beginning of my homeschooling days, I was mesmerized by the thought of learning with no curriculum. No books? No seatwork? No daily mother/child struggles? It sounded too good to be true. Nonetheless, after several years of homeschooling with varying methods and finding none that I felt was the perfect fit, I decided to venture into the world of unschooling.

I transitioned slowly into this new way of life. I still had read-aloud routines everyday, and we still used a math curriculum, but other than that, my children were free to spend their time as they chose. It was difficult for me at first. I’ve always been a planner and a bit of a- ahem!- control freak, so allowing my kids to take the lead on their education was difficult for me.

After several months, I relaxed a bit and began to see education in an entirely different way. I was able to see the value in little things like making paper dolls, playing with Legos, and even watching construction crews working on the street. My aversion to video games grew less and less, and I was able to identify the many skill-building tasks involved in each one. I nearly jumped for joy when one of my daughters took apart a light-up toy and afterwards was able to explain to me how an electrical circuit works.

Each of my children was busy finding out what they truly loved by being granted the time to do so. My oldest daughter immersed herself in Japanese anime and online manga and went on to learn not only the Japanese language but both sets of writing characters. She also began drawing her own anime-type illustrations and attended classes in drawing and painting, narrative illustration, and flash animation. Additionally, she began designing and sewing her own cosplay costumes for anime conventions.


Another daughter grew interested in theatrical makeup and made herself busy by painting her siblings’ faces every single day. She also made her own makeup products.

And yet another daughter grew so fascinated with crane and candy machines that she actually figured out how to make her own working candy machine out of Legos.

I could go on and on with stories like this, but I think you get the picture. These- these– are the positive moments most associated with unschooling.


Not every day was like this. In fact, the vast majority of days were not. There were days of complaints about boredom, bickering- lots of it, and fighting over the TV. And then there were the desperate cries of, “Mom, when are we going to start doing school again?”

But instead of picking up our old homeschool routine where we left off, I headed to unschooling message boards, where people would imply that I must somehow be doing something wrong because no child would ever prefer to do school work.

After hours and weeks of reading radical unschooling blogs and books, I eventually decided that that must be the problem. I needed to institute whole-life unschooling, meaning not only giving the children the reins on their education, but on their lives, in general. Thankfully, as a Christian, I was never able to go quite as far as some of these parents do, but what I did begin to allow had a very damaging effect on our family.

Since radical unschoolers have the philosophy of not making a child do anything he or she doesn’t want to, that meant that I was stuck doing all of the housework myself. (Not easy when you’re cleaning up after twelve people!) My kids spent tons of time watching TV and playing video games, which I do believe have value within limits, and absolutely no time reading.

Kids need screen time limits.

So, the blissful home life that I set out for became a household of chaos, complete with a very crabby mommy.

Finally, I announced to my children that we were going to start completing some structured school work again, and chores would be re-instituted. Was there a mutiny? Nope. They looked relieved.

So what did I take away from this experience? There are several things:

  • Unschooling can be a beautiful way to learn, but every child- yes, every child– needs direction and, dare I say, instruction on how the world works.
  • Contrary to what many radical unschoolers believe, children are not miniature adults. They are children, who need guidance in making decisions and, most importantly, need to be “trained up in the way they should go.” They do not have the same life experience that adults do and should not be expected to.
  • Children who are allowed to do absolutely whatever they want to become children that no one wants to play with. I have heard more than a few stories of how people at homeschool conventions could always pick out the children who were unschoolers because they were the ones that all of the other children stayed away from.
  • As much as I believe that children need to be given the gift of learning at their own pace, if you reach the point that your 12-yr.-old does not yet know how to write or your 15-yr.-old still writes his numbers backwards, it is time to intervene. (And it probably should have happened long ago.)
  • Unschooling your child does not mean that textbooks are forbidden, although there are some unschoolers who would say otherwise. If your child asks for a workbook to learn how to read, get her one. You are not doing anything wrong. In fact, you are probably doing something right because your child is interested in the first place.
  • Don’t become a slave to labels. Just because you identify as an unschooler does not mean that you have to do everything a certain way. Only you know your child. Use that to your advantage. That’s one of the beauties of homeschooling- having the freedom of choosing how to educate your children.

Before I invoke the wrath of unschoolers everywhere, this is not an attack on the homeschooling method itself but on the dogmatic approach many people employ. Natural learning is an amazing thing, but, like I say about curriculum, take advantage of the unschooling lifestyle. Don’t let it take advantage of you.




Author: Shelly Sangrey

I'm Shelly, a Christ-following, homeschooling Mom of eleven children ( okay, not ALL children. My oldest is 23.) I met my husband right after graduation, and we've been together ever since. Though my life can be hectic at times... okay, ALL the time, I wouldn't change it for anything.

56 thoughts on “Speaking from Experience: An Honest Discussion about Unschooling”

  1. I’m sorry for your negative experience in your attempt to unschool. Respectfully, and basing my thoughts only on what you’ve written, I think you may have gotten bad information about unschooling and also weren’t able to genuinely deschool for long enough for you family to really believe in what you were doing. In my experience, which is only anecdotal (like yours) Christians have a harder time because the true freedom from imposed structure drowns them and their children. I also believe they are dealing with guilty/shameful feelings on some level related to going against a “spare the rod, spoil the child” mentality that is central, in many ways, to raising “good” Christians. I’m uncomfortable with people who, however inadvertently, spread misinformation about unschooling, which is why I don’t follow some of the groups you’re probably referring to.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have a feeling you are right about those groups. They are very good at making parents feel as if they are doing everything wrong and seem to intentionally find ways to criticize you for even asking the simplest questions. That being said, I hope my post was able to convey that there were many good things about our experience. Things which we still hold on to as relaxed homeschoolers. Even now, our “school work” only lasts an hour or two a day, and the kids are given the rest of the time to pursue their own interests. That ended up being that “perfect” balance for us. Thanks for commenting!

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Christians do not have a harder time because of a drowning lack of ability to embrace true freedom from imposed structure…its just the reality of a large family. I know, because I tried unschooling for a LONG time with a family of 7 children. SOMEONE has to do the things that nobody wants to do. And children, being who they are developmentally, will happily leave mom to do everything while they play video games all day. Heck, I would leave everything all day to do whatever I pleased If I could, human nature being what it is…. I think moderns, who only have one or 2 children are the best bet for unschooling, because their lives are much “freer” and open to doing whatever they please, and have the ability to let their children not do any chores or any sort of work they dislike. For most of the rest of us, it is a recipe for mom becoming a slave and never having any time of her own….which stinks big time for freedom loving mom!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Everybody is an important member of the family (for us)–not just the kids. Nobody should be left feeling their needs don’t matter to anybody else in the family, especially long-term. I don’t know what “a modern” is, but we have five children. I think “anything goes regardless of impact on other people” is one of the biggest misconceptions about radical unschooling. Everybody matters equally. Nobody should feel comfortable making unilateral decisions that affect other people. When people feel abused or taken advantage of, they eventually stop serving others in order to be able to take care of themselves, and sometimes they learn that they were doing a lot more than anybody wanted anyway. What would happen if you, for example, stopped doing laundry for a week? Two weeks? Three weeks? Not in anger or as punishment, but because you are one person and no one person can meet all the needs of a large family–something’s got to give in order for you to be okay, too. For me it would (and has) felt embarrassing and uncomfortable at first if somebody else in the family has a different level of comfort with piles or dirty clothes than I do, but over time, we find our groove (and moved on to some other challenge of living together, and revisit previous issues should they arise again.) For me, it’s usually a mix of feeling taken advantage of and needing more structure and organization and preparedness than other people in my family need (and recognizing it as a difference and not a failure on my part or theirs).


  2. I was also really intrigued with the concept of unschooling and still find a lot of value in the idea that you can let your child take the reins to their education. But I also agree with you, that if your child wants to learn in a more structured environment, what’s the harm in that? I think it’s great that your children (mine does this too) WANT to do schoolwork. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that because I feel that it all comes down to the DESIRE TO LEARN. You know? We have tried unschooling, and the same as you, after a little while, my daughter would BEG for me to do lessons with her. She liked the lessons; so I didn’t think there was a thing wrong with learning this way. I wish homeschoolers wouldn’t judge each other so harshly. We are all in this “counterculture” movement together and I think we should be supportive of each other because we face enough criticism outside that circle as it is. Great post. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you. And you’re so right- we should stick together. To be quite honest, some people on the message board were brutal. I always walked away from the laptop feeling like I did something wrong. That certainly isn’t a way to encourage people to follow your homeschool philosophy!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. It was great to finally hear a great explanation of an unschool philosophy. I have a degree in education, so I couldn’t completely go that far. But I did let my kids follow interests. My son loves coins, so he apprenticed at a coin shop in town and learned a lot. Another daughter loved theater, and directed her first Christmas play at church at the age of 8. I have a writer who is working on her first novel. Then I have a daughter who always has lived makeup and is now an incredible makeup artist. She has done makeup for plays, weddings, proms, and high school pictures. It’s been a lot of fun, and they have taught me so much. It is good to travel out of the books.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Excellent post, Shelly! I love unschooling, and we started out as unschoolers which worked beautifully for the two of us (my then-six-year old son and I), but we’ve grown naturally into relaxed homeschoolers and we’re very happy with the way we learn. There is still a LOT of child-led learning and we still follow his interests but I also instill our values and house rules and structure which, like you, I believe kids actually crave and need.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely! We are considered relaxed homeschoolers as well I guess :). We have unschooled on and off quite a few times and every time it turns into chaos after a while. Just like Shelley said-bickering, boredom and more tv than we would ever like. Sure, loads of creativeness, but also loads of boredom in cold weather especially. The youngest ones all asked for school again too. :)I will always believe in rules, chores and structure with a bit of “school” during the day and then a bunch of free time/unschooling in between. I got so sucked in SO many times to radical unschooling…..bad idea around here!! I know it’s my God given duty to teach and train the children how to behave and be enjoyable to be around. Wild crazy maniacs are no fun for anyone to be around! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. We had a very similar experience; every time I tried to lighten the reigns a bit my kids would balk, tell me they were bored after a few weeks and then BEG me to teach and plan lessons again. After weeks and months and years of feeling guilty I finally realized it wasn’t for us and once I let go of the guilt and the idea of unschooling we finally found a happy medium. We plan some lessons and leave lots of time for exploration too.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Not being an unschooler and having somewhat strong opinions about it, I was hesitant to read your post. But I am glad I did. I found it honest and refreshing. I homeschooled my two boys for 18 years and finished up with the youngest leaving for college 7 years ago. Although it seems like a lifetime ago. I was not an unschooler but I probably wasn’t a typical homeschooler either. I felt that learning to write a reasonable one page paper, read and understand math were the most important agenda items. These items were non negotiable. Other things like poetry and classic literature, I was less concerned about. I did provide them plenty of time to follow their interests. And although they liked their free time, they also liked structure. They did chores and volunteer work and when they were old enough, got part-time jobs. They liked it. So I was loose (while keeping my eye on college requirements) but not a jelly fish.
    You children seem to have accomplished quite a bit. It is impressive. The whole anime and Japanese language things is a big – Wow!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I think our homeschooling approach sounds much like yours. There are some things which are crucial to learn, but freedom to pursue interests is so important, as well. This philosophy is what caused me to stray from unschooling into relaxed homeschooling territory. Thanks for reading!


  7. Thanks for sharing your experience Shelly. Our homeschool is very leaner-directed and in some ways this looks like unschooling but I am not philosophically an unschooler, in part, because like you say, children need direction, teaching and training. And in our we require household participation whether you are inclined or not.

    My kids have never asked for us to “do school” but they have communicated to me, through indirect and direct means for more structure. Sometimes that means structure in a “school” subject, sometimes that means structure in how we organize our time. They have also from time to time, asked for less structure. And during these times their education looks very unschooling (except for my requirements of household chores).

    There is no label for it, but I call it freedom education. Freedom to be us, to to build a curriculum and lifestyle that fits who we are.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Our unschooling journey, allowed me to see learning in a whole new light. It helped me see “outside of the box”. However, I needed to shed the label too. In my opinion, labels don’t allow room for growth. I question our need for labels in the first place. I follow my girls interests; I’ve sat through every twilight movie. 🙂 I also believe mathematics, and writing are extremely important concepts that must be mastered. For them to be mastered, they need practice.

    I have discovered that no matter what homeschooling philosophy you use, there will always be purists that tell you you’re doing it wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I really appreciate your honesty on this issue! I feel like the positive behaviors you described at the beginning are the kinds of things kids could learn through an unstructured summer break, but long summers tend to make you grateful for school to start up again. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely. My younger kids will be finished next week, and I’m dreading the 8 weeks they’ll have off because doing school everyday provides the structure we all need!


  10. Thanks for sharing your perspective. I’m coming down the home stretch with about five years left, and if there is one thing I would have changed when my boys were all tiny it would be to have been more relaxed!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wish I would have been more relaxed from the beginning, as well. I was so rigid the first two years (because I was trying to recreate school at home) that I ended up burning out and sending my kids back to school for two years. It’s something I’ll always regret, but…lesson learned!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. You are so completely practical. Oh my gosh, I laughed out loud when you were talking about a 15-year-old who still writes his numbers backwards.


    I’m not at all sold on the idea of unschooling. We tried it one year when my oldest was in kinder, and we knew then that it wouldn’t work. Plus, I’m going to speak freely here. Being a black family. You can’t have a black boy not reading until he’s nine. Police. He would be labeled as stupid, ignorant, and slow among other things.

    I can only fight so many battles, and that’s not one I wanted to fight.

    Thanks for this great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can see where you’re concerned about that, and it makes me so mad that that even has to be the case. Like boiling, redhead temper mad… And the 15-year-old who wrote his numbers backwards? Believe it or not, that is something I actually read had happened. It was at that point that I really, really started questioning just how far people will go so that they can be called unschoolers. Anyway, thank you for reading my post and for hosting the linkup. You’re so awesome!


  12. Thank you for this thoughtful and honest analysis of your experiences unschooling! As a former homeschooled child AND a kindergarten teacher I can really relate to a lot of what you said, and I think you said it with such wisdom and graciousness. Thank you for sharing your experiences at #FridayFrivolity! Pinning and tweeting. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As I was scrolling to find the “pin it” button, the part about “children who are allowed to do whatever they want become children no one wants to play with” is so true! And it also gives them NO preparation for life whatsoever… nobody is able to do “whatever they want” through life… what a shock it must be to a child’s system if they have grown up with that kind of absolute tyranny, and suddenly have to hold down a job, maintain a home, etc…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. We have a neighbor boy who is being raised in this sort of manner, although he does go to school. He is selfish, rude, and manipulative, and I have to limit the amount of time he spends with my kids because if he’s around them too much, he becomes unbearable. Such a shame.


  13. These are excellent and valid points! I think TV and video games get a bad reputation. As you said, it is good within limits. My five year old is amazing at video games, and can do things I can’t on them! I love how my sons like to “teach” me how to play the games when we are done our school work! Thanks for sharing with #SocialButterflySunday! Hope to see you link up again this week 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Interesting thoughts about a complicated issue. I know my daughter would not do well in an unschooling setting. She loves anime too much and would not learn much of anything. Thanks for sharing on Literacy Musing Mondays.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I think you listening to the needs of your children is the biggest aspect of unschooling. Each child needs different things and if yours thrive with more direct instruction, then that’s exactly what you should be doing. I love unschooling and the flexibility it gives my son and I. Parents who lock themselves into an ideal of what their homeschooling technique is, however, are doing everyone a disservice. Use what works, leave the rest. I find the negativity on either end of the homeschooling spectrum disparaging. I’d rather say kudos for finding your happy place! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, you are so, so right. I think that when we make the mistake of labeling ourselves as a specific type of homeschooler, it can make us afraid to stray from the norms of that method, despite how desperately our children need it.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. We unschooled successfully for several years. Then last year things started to shift and evolve. Our son began asking for more structure and lists and such. We’ve dropped the unschooling label and now focus on whatever works best for him and our family.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is the most important thing- not worrying about what category you fall under but instead focusing on the needs of your kids, which, as I’ve seen from your blog, you do beautifully!


  17. Shelly, thank you for this! I was a homeschooled kid, part of the pioneering homeschooling movement which began in the 70s and 80s, and I saw some very damaging experiments played out on my generation. A number of my peers were subjected to the radical unschooling philosophy you describe. These individuals “graduated” high school without a diploma, and discovered themselves in the real world functionally illiterate, unable to fill out a job application or apply for work. Some of my peers, when mentored by caring individuals after this point, discovered they did indeed have the potential for so much more than they had been offered, and grew very angry at their parents for allowing unschooling to take such a harmful turn. Student-led exploration has a place, of course, and I love how homeschooling allows students to pursue their own interests in a way a traditional brick-and-mortar schedule would not allow. But I also believe in structured framework. I was fortunate in my homeschool experience, which was a healthy balance of academic instruction and interest-led exploration. The key, I think, was that my siblings and I were allowed to pursue our own interests *after* we had completed the necessary basics of education each day. After all, if a child were to be put in charge of the grocery shopping, we all know the diet would be far from balanced. Thank you for speaking out on this controversial topic!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow. Thank you so much for giving me your perspective on this. You have actually encouraged me a lot because it sounds like our homeschool is much like yours was as a child- structured learning with lots of time for interest-led learning afterwards. I’m so glad you shared your experience!

      Liked by 1 person

  18. OMG, that is EXACTLY how I feel about Unschooling. We started “practicing” it when it actually meant only Unschooling. When it meant following John Holt’s philosophies. When it referred to academics. To not making kids study what didn’t interest them. To not imposing a curriculum. To not forcing kids to study things that were be irrelevant. But now it means a whole other thing. Now Unschooling is mostly Radical Unschooling, which we have never practiced. We call it Unparenting! We thought we were heading in that direction, but the online “support” we got was so awful and judgemental and one-sided that we soon realized that it’s all just a big mess of very confused parents raising very rude, inconsiderate and selfish kids.

    Liked by 1 person

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