What is Unschooling? Trusting our children’s natural ability to learn

18 February, 2016

What is unschooling? Unschooling starts from birth and, for me, it is simply trusting our kid’s ability to learn. Therefore, to some extent, for a little while all of us do an incy wincy little bit of it….

Here are some things that most children learn to do themselves. Yep, there are some parents that think they had something to do with it, as if the child wouldn’t have mastered “cat” without a grown up repeating it back to them, correcting the errant “K” at the end with the “T” sound, every time they attempted it. But here’s the thing, they would have! Otherwise the grown up world would be full of confused arguments about whether “Cat” ends in a K sound or a T. We don’t have that argument! Because eventually our mouths become able, and our minds become willing, to pronounce things the way everyone else does. Anyway, that list:

Things babies teach themselves- for better or worse:
How to put things in things
How to throw things
How to put things in their mouth

I guess, on some level, we know we didn’t teach them these things, hey? That they learnt them by following their gut instincts, by observing, by copying, practicing, by repeating. That our pleas to “put one foot in front of the other, honey” had very little to do with whether they learnt to walk – apart from all the love we put into that encouragement. Because love does make a child’s world pretty fertile, when it comes to learning.

Some babies teach themselves to do hard out stuff, like breakdancing. My own child, Juno, when she was 15 months old, taught herself how to click her fingers. True thing. if she wanted something, she’d point and click. A sharp, unavoidable sound. Like a wealthy fine diner at a waiter.

So your kid gets to 3 or 4, and so far so good. They have learnt EVERYTHING they need to survive and thrive. Very little passes them by. Most children can move and communicate, some can click their fingers and some have had room in their brain to learn the entire script of Cars.

There’s been a fair amount of trust. And perhaps the odd wobble – is my child reaching all those developmental milestones?! And googling of “should a child be speaking in sentences by 2.5”

But mostly we’ve just been feeding and loving them, and they have been growing and learning.

Then they turn 5 and everything changes.

Suddenly we absolutely doubt their ability to learn what they need to learn. It’s more than doubt. We are convinced that it is impossible for a child to learn everything she needs to learn without the input of an adult.

We begin lessons. Lessons in reading, writing, maths, music, dancing, swimming, bike riding, sports.


The answer to that is HUGE, to do with the military industrial complex (please read Natural Born Learners for more on this, it is THE greatest education book, in my Umble opinion!)

But let me just leave that hanging there for a while and go on to describe some things that children learn all by themselves between the ages of 4 and 5, if you leave them to it.

Things Ramona has learnt this year – even though we are unschooling so have had no classes of any kind:

Swim (literally at the point at which I was googling “How to teach your children to swim” we went to a campsite with a big beautiful pool and Ramona sat and watched the big kids swimming for a few hours, then told me to get in the deep end and stand a few metres away from the ladder, then she jumped in and swam to me.)

Bike Ride (between the hours of 6pm and 8pm one evening)

Make jokes (she has just got the humour thing, beyond replacing all words with “poo”- now her Knock Knock jokes are still sublimely weird but with the core of humour within them)

Rhyme (absolutely no conscious effort on my part, apart from me mumbling “Tidy Schmidy” or “Clean Dishes Schmishes” when I feel something is overrated)

Count to a hundred (just for fun)

Recognise numbers and the letters that count (R)

What is unschooling? Whole Body Learning!

Now Ramona is five, almost every conversation with a stranger goes like this “How old are you?” “Five” “Do you like school?” “I don’t go to school” “Oh.”

She will often follow up with a unique explanation of what we do. Never “My parents believe that children are naturally inclined to learn, and given a nurturing and curious environment will learn everything they need to thrive” but something like:

“I learn my own self”

“I learn in my body”

“I teach my own self things.”

“I taught myself to ride my bike.”

I smiled particularly at the “learn in my body” answer… I wondered what she meant, how she had come to decide that her mind and body were inescapably tied in her learning journey. And then I read this brilliant article, about reading readiness being a bodily matter

“(Reading) readiness includes complex neurological pathways and kinesthetic awareness… It’s the result of brain maturation as well as rich experiences found in bodily sensation and movement.”

What is unschooling? Owning the joy of learning!

When Ramona learnt to ride her bike I was so freaking happy. It was a well of pride and joy bubbling up! Her own face was a picture of achievement. I was like “WOW! How do you FEEL?!” and she said “I feel so happy, like my heart is saying Go Ramona Go!!”

Here’s the thing. Something real important. When we step in and teach we can take away that sheer joy of discovery and the power of our children understanding their potential. If a child believes they have to be taught stuff, this will underpin their whole life. Alternatively, imagine a child absolutely owning her learning and knowing she can learn ANY THING SHE WANTS and this motoring her along for the rest of her days.

It is too easy for us to snatch a little bit of the honour of learning, by believing that our child’s legendaryness is due to our skill at teaching.

I loved this story, about learning to read, from Peter Gray’s unschooling style column on Psychology Today.

“She had consistently told people that she didn’t know how to read until she made brownies this past November [at age 7]. She asked her father and myself to make her favorite brownies for her, but neither of us was willing to make them. A little while later she ran into the room and asked me if I would turn on the oven for her and find her a 9×11 pan (she said, “9 ex 11” instead of “9 by 11″). I got her a pan and turned on the oven. Later she ran in and asked me to put the brownies in the oven. Then she said, ‘Ma, I think I can read now.’ She brought me a few books that she then read out loud to me until she jumped up and said, ‘those brownies smell done. Will you take them out now?’ … Now she tells people that she knows how to read and that she taught herself how.”

what is unschooling

What is unschooling? Here from a whole bunch of different people in this video 😀

What is unschooling? Learning together

There is so much to learn, so many resources, so many people, and I have so much to give my child! But I will share when invited, and share learning resources in a spirit of friendship, of equality. I would never withhold knowledge or sources of knowledge (here’s one of those weird nuance things “Do this! But also a bit of this! And bear this in mind! And this way you will be the best parent!”) and I will partner with my daughters as they learn more and more and more – but I will aim to make the joy of learning all their own.

I guess people who are home educating might be reading this going “ooh yes, true! I can simply let my child learn joyfully through play!” but perhaps people with children in school might be feeling a bit bummed out. I don’t know though. I like to think this idea, about trusting our children, can be applied in every home, and, if you have the energy, be taken further, perhaps influencing your pre-school, or classroom. (I don’t imagine you would turn up at the school board saying “I read a blog by a hippy in a yurt and I think we should let the children learn how, what and when they wanna learn!!” but you might raise this study from the University of Cambridge about the importance of play and formal learning beginning far, far later than it currently does.

So wherever you are at, I reckon we can all do a bit to recognise our child’s natural ability to learn cool stuff, we can all attempt to trust that a bit more, and see our children own the full joy of discovery.

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  • Sue Denim 18 February, 2016 at 11:44 pm

    Hello! Thanks for your article, it does sound like a wonderful start for your kids and yeah I do feel bummed out now! – I had until about a year ago intended to eschew school for my kid but suddenly my 2 1/2 year old is in fact about to start SCHOOL just next week. Basically I can no longer take, despite how I adore him, full time childcare anymore – I have not found a way to do my work (writing songs) with him around, I’ve tried but I just haven’t made it work, and I really really want to do my thing, I miss it too much and have stopped enjoying being a parent when I have no break from it during the day. I have found no alternative options for childcare where I live (North Wales) unless you homeschool/unschool. I guess one consolation is that he doesn’t have to stay full time in school, maybe things could change as he gets older, and doesn’t need my attention ALL the time… flexi-school or deregister and start again ..?.. but then…he might not want to leave once he’s in the system! I have tried other options (babysitting mainly, and time with his grandparents) but it’s not totally reliable when it’s friends & relatives, there’s no one to stand in when they’re ill, that kind of thing. I really want to do the best for him, but I also want to do the best for me and not be a depressed creatively unfulfilled mother! Any suggestions?

  • Sue 18 February, 2016 at 11:57 pm

    PS I do appreciate the suggestion you already made as to that report, have read it…thanks 🙂
    I’ve already spoken to the pre-school boss woman about the way I do things at home, and she expressed interest, so that was encouraging, I guess I am still feeling scared at the prospect of him going though. But also looking forward to having regular time for myself. ..ambivalent. Thanks again for your post – my negative feelings around my tot going to school shows me some needs of mine are not being met so it’s good to be reminded of that and suss out what that’s all about!

  • Hazel 19 February, 2016 at 3:41 am

    I don’t imagine you would turn up at the school board saying “I read a blog by a hippy in a yurt and I think we should let the children learn how, what and when they wanna learn!!”

    I work in Early Years in the UK and I would love to say that to Ofsted at their next inspection :))

    I totally agree with children learning by themselves. All 3 of my children are good cooks, for example. I didn’t ever ‘teach’ them, but they used to love helping me cook when they were little and now they can cook dinner. (I do confess to sneaking off to the kitchen at times to just get tea ‘done’, but it was worth the mess and late meals now I sometimes get cooked for. Just wondering when they’re going to teach themselves how to tidy up…)

  • Candace 23 February, 2016 at 7:19 am

    This article is just in time! I have 4yo twins, one who needs extra attention to learn plus LOTS of time to practice what he is learning. I have support from his therapists and school, but I am sad that his frustration in trying to master seemingly “easy” skills leads him to want to give and quit. He began school last year at 3, and came home everyday for the first two weeks saying “I can do it myself.” This year, his most common phrase is “I can’t”…without even trying. I don’t want him to lose his zest for learning…he has tested cognitively at above average, so I know he is capable, but I am not sure what really motivates him. I have to bribe him to “practice” his skills, but I know I am doing him an disservice. I don’t want the constant power struggles that occur when it’s time to do his “homework” and I fear his lack of motivation may lead him to under-perform in school, causing more frustration and even more disheartening lack of self-confidence.

    Definitely sharing this with my community of moms @ fb/justamompreneur.com!

  • Anna-Louise 25 April, 2017 at 12:23 am

    Love this! It reminds me slightly of the vision of Emmi Pikler.

  • Leo Tat 15 June, 2017 at 9:08 am

    This is the first time I came across unschooling. I can understand the concept and see the benefits of unschooling. Being able to learn things for themselves, the children gain in self-confidence rather than make them learn something that they are not ready (which can be confidence breaking). Also, this kind of self-learning, exploration ability carries onto adulthood. After formal education where children have grown up being spoon-fed, they lose the important skill of autodidacticism. Autodidacticism unleashes one potential.

    Your story about how Ramona learned to swim is impressive.

  • sharla 2 January, 2018 at 8:29 am

    Hi Lucy, Do you have any references referring to statistics, that kind of thing to do with ‘unschooling’. Or any quotes or references from the ministry of ed. here or overseas. I would really appreciate anything solid that you have. Thanks heaps