Homeschooling Methods: An Overview of Unschooling

Unschooling has its ups and downs!

Last week I spent some time discussing the pros and cons of school-at-home and unit studies. Today I will be tackling a method that truly is the backbone of my beliefs about how children learn best, although I do mix this philosophy in with more structured learning activities. I may not be an unschooler, but I have seen first-hand how awesome kids are at learning naturally.

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The late education reformer John Holt coined the term “unschooling” as a term to be used to simply mean “not school.” While never having children of his own, this former teacher spent vast amounts of time observing children of friends, co-workers, and family members and wrote several noteworthy books on his experiences, such as Learning All the Time, How Children Learn, and Teach Your Own.

What Holt found throughout these years was that children who are given the freedom to pursue their own interests do not need to be pushed to learn and, in fact, do not need any sort of traditional school experience to learn at all. He surmised that just as babies learn to crawl, walk, and speak without formal lessons, children who are not hindered by placing them in a classroom where they are told they can only acquire knowledge by being taught by someone else, flourish and not only learn a great deal from life, but also retain this knowledge- something schools haven’t managed to achieve very well, just yet.

While Holt originally referred to any type of home learning atmosphere as “unschooling,” this word has taken on a meaning of its own as another method of homeschooling. Staying true to John Holt’s philosophy of giving children the space they need to find things out on their own, today’s unschoolers strive to create a home atmosphere that doesn’t resemble any type of structured learning at all. Imagine the sorts of things you do on the weekends or on summer vacation. This is the best way to visualize what happens in the unschooling household.

It is necessary to point out that there are two different styles of unschooling. The first group gives their children autonomy in their education while still requiring certain things from them in their everyday lives, such as chores, bedtimes, and following the rules of the house.

The second group, or “radical unschoolers,” takes this autonomy one step further and allows their children to have control over every aspect of their lives. They eat what they choose, go to bed when they choose, and help around the house only if they choose. If you are considering taking this path of learning, I suggest you research this option and decide what you feel the most comfortable with.

Since, like unit studies, the unschooling method may be unfamiliar to some, I will briefly describe the sorts of activities that may occur in an unschooling day. Again, I will break it down into subject areas in order to make it easier to see where the learning is happening, but I guarantee you that the vast majority of unschoolers don’t even give school-type subjects a second thought.

Language Arts– wrote an email to a friend, had an online conversation, wrote a story, made the grocery shopping list

Math– calculated statistics for an online game, counted allowance and made purchases, calculated how much 20% off of sale items would be, doubled lasagna recipe

Social Studies– went shopping, interacted with online friends, watched a WWII documentary, listened to elderly neighbor tell stories about the Great Depression

Science– watched videos of aquatic mammals, visited creek and observed crayfish, tadpoles, and minnows, did some experiments from a library book

Art– sketched trees at the creek

Music– practiced playing ukele

In this sample, it’s quite obvious that, while there were no structured assignments completed on this day, there was an abundance of valuable knowledge acquired without any outside coercion.



Children are given the opportunity to focus on their strengths and interests, which can quite often lead to gaining experience in improving weaknesses and learning to get through something tedious in order to achieve something that is worthwhile to them.

There is no power struggle over writing assigments, math homework, or reports due.

There is little preparation. Each day is full of surprises and ample time to spend quality time together as a family or in solitude for self-reflection.

Children who learn what they are interested in are more likely to to participate in “true learning,” instead of rote memorization, which is often forgotten once it is no longer needed.

Children who are given more freedom are more likely to be able to “think on their feet” and come up with creative solutions to unexpected problems.



The lack of structure may not work well for some children, especially for those in large families. Structure is quite often the glue that holds each day together, and without it, some households may erupt in chaos. (Speaking from experience…)

It can be difficult to assess learning when there are no reports to look over, quizzes to grade, and math papers to correct. Quite often, most assessments in the unschooling household are achieved through everyday conversations between parent and child. While this may be adequate for some parents, many prefer to have the option of ticking off a list of achievements.

– I’m sure that many unschoolers will disagree, but there are some children who either prefer to be given expectations by their parents, or who are just not motivated enough to pursue things on their own. A usual reply to this opinion is that some children just need time to get used to the idea that they truly can do whatever they wish. This sounds reasonable at first glance, but what happens when years pass and a child is still not willing to take the initiative in their education? There has to be a point that a parent will concede that this method just may not work for their child. As parents, educating our own children is not only a right but a privilege, and we must see to it that we are holding up our end of the bargain.

There are certain things in life that need to be addressed at some point, whether it is calculating percentages, writing with clarity, or any other number of things. As with the last bullet point, there are undoubtedly some kids who will acquire this knowledge on their own, but there are many others who will need a boost and need some structure to learn these things.


So there you have my assessment of the unschooling approach to home education. Stay tuned for my overview of eclectic/relaxed homeschooling. Thanks for reading!

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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.

32 thoughts on “Homeschooling Methods: An Overview of Unschooling”

  1. Oh my goodness! I’m so glad you shared with today with Growing in Grace. I visited her site for the first time today, and saw this, and NEEDED to read it!! I am a teacher-turned-homeschooling-mama and it’s all so new to me. I officially start in the Fall, but I’m so excited for these opportunities. I will really need to adjust to the unstructured learning, but I’m so excited to start!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad you found my blog, too. I’ll be entering my 8th year of homescholing, and, honestly, I’m so excited for the new year that I want to start right now! (We start in about 3 1/2 weeks. Have fun with your homeschooling journey. I hope it’s amazing!


  2. The longer I homeschool, the more I lean towards “unschooling”. Had someone told me this from Day 1, I think I would have run and hid. However, my son, especially thrives and really only learns when “interested in the topic”… otherwise it’s like throwing marshmallows at his head and calling it eating (love that quote… but I need to remember who wrote it!)

    Liked by 2 people

  3. This is an excellent overview! I definitely love aspects of unschooling but need a bit more plan and structure in my days than a true unschooler.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I completely agree. I honestly think that everyone should give unschooling a try, if only to see the many unexpected ways that learning can happen. Thanks for commenting1


  4. I love how you broke everything down as far as how learning is achieved with unschooling. We follow an unschooling/eclectic approach in our homeschool. I’ve noticed that (like you said) there are some aspects where my children prefer a bit more structure and others where they prefer more freedom.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We, too, have a mixture of unschooling and eclectic learning. Some of my kids, like my 16 yr. old son, lean more towards unschooling with just a bit of structure, while my oldest daughter is a little more structured, although she’s constantly pursuing her own interests in her spare time. That’s why I limit our time spent doing structured work to around 2-3 hours a day. It leaves the kids with plenty of time to explore. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I completely believe homeschooling is best for our family. And since coming across the idea of unschooling as a method all on its own, I’ve become more and more inclined towards it. I think as the boys grow (and maybe we have more littles), we’ll merge into some form of eclectic unschooling or something. As an example of the benefits for a child, Monkey Boy is 3 and he’s far advanced from most of his cousins, including those older than he. And what learning looks like for us is that some days there is an element of teaching (if he wants) re: letters, numbers, shapes, colors, etc. Other days, there’s none and still others it’s whatever comes up. Just yesterday, we had a short lesson in electronics as one of the computer keyboards (for play) was apart, so I took the opportunity not just to help him put it back together, but also to at least discuss the different parts. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I am exploring options for home schooling my 2 great grandchildren. It is my goal for neither to ever step foot in a public school. I like the unschool method and I know people that have used it quite successfully. My concern is how it might conflict with state laws in different states that require records sent to the school district. In my state all home school options require sending grades, tests, hours per day etc to the school district. How do you unschool and still meet these requirements??

    Liked by 1 person

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