Unschooling Builds on a Child’s Natural Curiosity and Interest in Exploring the world
Unschooling is a form of natural learning that builds on a child’s innate curiosity and interest in exploring the world around them. Early observations of babies and young children suggest that when they are feeling secure and connected with their caregivers they are able to use them as a secure base from which to explore (1). Unschooling families help facilitate learning by creating interesting and rich environments at home and also by venturing out and making the world more accessible in ways that feel safe and meaningful to the individual child. Each family’s unschooling experience will be unique because of this.
John Holt originally coined the term unschooling in the 1970s to denote a natural form of learning that is not associated with any methods of formal teaching or assessment at school or at home (2) .
An excerpt from the film Class Dismissed – John Holt and Pat Farenga, President of John Holt Associates talk about unschooling (3)
Nurturing a child’s natural curiosity and interest also requires a parent to recognise the important role that close and connected relationships play in the development of a child’s emotional well-being and the child’s ability to engage with the world and to learn effectively (1).
Sandra Dodd, unschooling parent and advocate describes unschooling as – “creating and maintaining an environment in which natural learning can thrive.” (4)
Sandra developed the idea of the “unschooling nest” to describe not only the importance of creating a rich and interesting physical environment for children but also to emphasise the important role that relationships and the quality of the emotional environment of the home plays in children’s learning, well-being – trusting and secure relationships are the foundations on which unschooling thrives (4).
Sandra Dodd describes the importance of relationships and the ‘unschooling nest’.
Play IS Learning
From their earliest interactions babies engage with their parents in playful exchanges (5). As children grow, play continues to be a central way that children learn about the world around them. Peter Gray has explored the evolutionary context in which play emerged and the important role it plays in enabling children to learn about relationships and the tools of their culture (6).
In many hunter gatherer societies play has formed a fundamental part of the way children learn about what is expected of them and practice the skills necessary for them to become competent and valued members of their society. At present many children are drawn to exploring computers and technology because they are interesting and they intuitively understand they are tools of our culture. They know technology enables them to access information and make connections with other people (6). By enabling children to have free access to computers and other forms of technology and by partnering children in their explorations, unschooling families provide rich growth and learning opportunities.
“Children… learn physical, social, and emotional skills through play. Also, play and exploration are the natural means by which children practice the values that they observe in the culture around them. In other words, play and exploration are the natural ways by which children have always educated themselves, beginning way before there was anything like schools.” Peter Gray (7)
If we understand that play is the mechanism by which children learn, we can appreciate how important it is to create the right kinds of relationships and spaces where children feel safe to play. Unschooling families recognise the fundamental importance of play for learning and they see that it brings joy to their children’s lives. Because of this unschoolers arrange their lives so that their children have maximum opportunities to play in ways that are meaningful to them. Parents also appreciate the importance of child initiated and self-directed play alongside the benefits of parents playing together with their children. We have noticed that our children particularly enjoy playing with us and we engage in all types of imaginary, creative and constructive play together.
An unschooling parent can be particularly good at playing with their children as they can play in ways that are specifically tailored to their individual child’s needs and developmental level. We can partner our children in their play, being sensitive to when they would like us to stand back, and when they would like us to be more involved. Freedom to play brings joy and learning in unschooling families.
“Playful parenting is a way to enter a child’s world, on the child’s terms, in order to foster closeness, confidence and connection. When all is well in their world, play is an expansive vista where children are joyful, engaged, cooperative, and creative. Play is also the way that children make the world their own, exploring, making sense of all their new experiences, and recovering from life’s upsets.” Lawrence Cohen (8)
Nurturing Passions and Interests
Unschooling families recognise that children are most joyful and learn most effectively when they are following their passions and interests. They make many deep and rich learning connections that are more likely to be understood and remembered when they are personally relevant and meaningful. Unschooling parents help facilitate and nurture their children’s interests and passions, exploring them together. We make suggestions and introduce them to new ideas, experiences and activities that they might enjoy and we see what appeals to them or what they find interesting. We do not coerce or control their interests but help to support and facilitate, opening up new avenues of opportunity.
Unschooling means that children are free to spend as much time as they wish engaged in pursuing interests and activities they enjoy. Families can help the children immerse themselves in their interests or enable them to dip in and out of an interest as they wish. Parents recognise that it is important for their children to be able to make choices and to be supported in this process.
Our daughters, Lily 9 years and Rosa 5 years, have had a variety of interests which have evolved over time. They have developed some individual and shared passions which we have helped to facilitate. For example their interest in dinosaurs has enabled us to explore many aspects of the natural world from the beginnings of life on earth, our evolutionary history and the diversity of plants and species that are found today. Together we have learnt about geology and gone to visit areas rich in fossils, we have visited fossil festivals, museums, we read and watch films and documentaries together, play interesting and fun Apps and we play imaginary games involving their favourite dinosaurs. We have shared this passion with friends and other families that we know and the children have had lots of fun playing and learning, and exploring these things together.
Their interest in playing Minecraft has led to rich and varied learning, including developing their spatial awareness, strategy and planning, researching and exploring different building methods, geological materials and game playing. They engage in creative and imaginative problem solving and role play, developing an appreciation and understanding of mathematical concepts and being able to use them in both pragmatic and creative ways. Lily and Rosa play with children of different ages from around the world as they collaborate in creative projects and games together. It has been wonderful to watch our children learning so freely and naturally and in partnership with us through their intrinsic motivation and desire to do so.
It is important that unschooling parents are also curious about the world and love learning. As a family we share our children’s passions and enjoy exploring them together, having fun, maximising joy and building connections as we learn. One interest/passion leads into many other areas of interest and there is no need to limit this curiosity or create artificial divides between the diverse areas of learning.
“We follow our interests,” is the unschoolers’ anthem. And, each family’s interests will lead to all kinds of learning—history, math, writing, music, reading, science, and all the other real-life subject matter that is valuable and interesting. But we won’t think of them as “subjects.” We’ll just think of them as interesting and fun and fascinating and something we want to pursue further or not. One thing will lead to another and life goes on and kids learn and parents learn and life is full of opportunity everywhere we look.” Pam Sorooshian (9)
An unschooling approach trusts a child’s intrinsic motivation to learn what they are interested in and what is useful to them as and when they are ready. Children learn to read and write without coercion because they live in a print rich culture (often digital) where their environment is full of the written word, and they are motivated to do so as it usually has a practical relevance to their lives. Our daughter Lily has learnt to read and write through her desire to communicate in internet forums and whilst playing online games with friends from all over the world. In playing Minecraft she has developed relationships with people she is playing with and wants to chat and communicate her ideas and gameplay strategies effectively.
Rather than believing that there is a specific set of knowledge that must be learned at a particular time and in a particular way, unschooling advocates an approach which fosters a love of learning and living joyfully. Children are intrinsically motivated to explore and research what is useful to them and to solve problems creatively as and when they need to do so. At 9yrs Lily has already learnt many of the skills useful in independent research but also draws on our help to gain knowledge of areas in which she is interested. If children are given the freedom to learn in ways that are meaningful to them they are more likely to maintain their passion and curiosity about life and learning.
“Since we can’t know what knowledge will be most needed in the future, it is senseless to try to teach it in advance. Instead, we should try to turn out people who love learning so much and learn so well that they will be able to learn whatever must be learned.” – John Holt (10)
Unschooling families can provide their children with resources and opportunities for diverse and varied experiences suited to their individual children’s needs. We travel to museums, galleries, aquariums, zoos, farms and many other interesting places we like to explore. The children enjoy riding horses, climbing, riding their bikes, swimming, cinema and lots of activities with us and their friends. They make lots of meaningful connections to the things they are learning as part of their everyday lives and they are able to follow their interests over time.
“Unschoolers focus on living a rich and stimulating life together. Seriously, that’s it. We do not ‘school’, but, instead, we concentrate on living a life filled with opportunities and possibilities and experiences. Human children are born learners. Literally. What unschoolers aim for is keeping that love of learning and intense curiosity alive as the children grow up.” Pam Sorooshian (9)
Unschooled children are also free to relax and spend time in ways that they enjoy, just being, thinking and reflecting on their experiences and their lives, learning in conversation with their parents without the pressure of scheduled routines and activities.
Trusting children emerges from close and connected relationships that parents and children develop as a result of attentive and responsive parenting. Children develop the ability to make choices in the context of a rich and facilitating environment in which the parents help to support the children in the choices they make.
Unschooling is not Child-led Learning but Based on the Partnership Paradigm
A parent can help facilitate their child’s interests and passions by nurturing their natural curiosity and desire to explore. A parent will also make suggestions and offer choices and opportunities that the child otherwise may not have discovered or thought of alone. An unschooling parent grows to know their child and has a relationship based on trust and understanding of their child’s individual needs and personal preferences. It involves attentive and responsive parenting and partnering our children to help them negotiate situations which they may find difficult and being aware of the kinds of environments and situations in which they thrive. It is very much an active, caring partnership, which recongises that it is only through meeting a child’s needs that they are able to develop and thrive as emotionally healthy and connected members of society.
Rather than child-led learning Pam Sorooshian more accurately describes the relationship between parent and child as like a dance:
“Unschooling is more like a dance between partners who are so perfectly in synch with each other that it is hard to tell who is leading. The partners are sensitive to each others’ little indications, little movements, slight shifts and they respond. Sometimes one leads and sometimes the other”. Pam Sorooshian. (11)
Learning is Everywhere
Unschooling well will involve the parent being able to see and appreciate the learning that is happening in their children’s lives all of the time. Learning is not divided into discrete subjects but is seen as part of everyday life and experience. Parents will benefit from understanding the learning which is happening in all the activities that their children love. If parents do not spend time engaged with them and sharing their children’s passions and interests they may miss out on their children’s learning. They may not realise the complexity of the learning which is taking place and the meanings the child is developing, and therefore not be able to effectively facilitate it.
“Unschooling is creating an environment in which children can learn easily and naturally all the time.” Sandra Dodd (12)
Unschooling and the wider community
One of the benefits of an unschooling approach is the flexibility that parents and children have to follow their own unique agenda. Some families use this opportunity to travel and explore the world (13). There are unschooling networks in various countries across the world and online support groups that can help parents meet and stay connected, both on and offline. Children and their families also have the opportunity of being connected and engaged within their local communities by taking part in various community groups and events. Children may take up classes, both paid and voluntary work in the community and they may choose to attend college and University. Unschooled children and young people meet children and people of a variety of different ages and backgrounds during the course of their everyday lives (both on and off line); this makes for varied and rich relationships within both local and global communities.
Unschooling children learn in their own unique and individual ways within their families and wider communities, free from the usual pressures of arbitrary structures and routines. Unschooling provides a wonderful opportunity for children and young people to live and learn in ways that specifically suit their needs, preferences and developmental readiness. It provides families with the freedom to live their lives in ways that foster close and connected relationships and enables their children to thrive.
Emma Marie Forde is an unschooling mum with two daughters, ages 9 year and 5 years. Emma obtained her doctorate in Clinical Psychology, at Plymouth University, UK and worked with children and families before taking a break to have her own children. Emma lives in the South West of England with her children and husband John. You can find more of Emma’s writing at her blog www.rethinkingparenting.co.uk.
- Howe, D. (2011). Attachment Across the Life Course: A Brief Introduction. Palgrave Macmillan.
- Stern, D. N. (2002). The First Relationship: Infant and Mother. Harvard University Press. (http://www.abebe.org.br/wp-content/uploads/Daniel-N.-Stern-The-First-Relationship-Infant-and-Mother-With-a-New-Introduction-2002-1.pdf
- Gray, P (2015). Free to Learn. Basic Books
- Gray, P. (2013. Play as Preparation for Learning and Life: An Interview with Peter Gray. American Journal of Play. Vol 5, No.3, pp. 271-292. http://www.journalofplay.org/sites/www.journalofplay.org/files/pdf-articles/5-3-interview-play-as-preparation.pdf
- Cohen, L. J. (2012). Playful Parenting. Ballantine Books.
- Sorooshian, Pam. http://sandradodd.com/pam/ilive
- Holt, John (1995). How Children Fail. DaCapo Press
- Sorooshian, Pam. https://learninghappens.wordpress.com/2011/09/24/unschooling-is-not-child-led-learning
- Dodd, Sandra. http://whateveramen.com/parenting26-interview-with-sandra-dodd
- Liberti, L. http://www.raisingmiro.com/category/unschooling-2/