10 Tips for New Unschooling Parents

By Jan Hunt

Because few of today’s unschooling parents were unschooled themselves, they may have many fears about their own competence to create a rewarding learning environment. These fears are based on the parent’s inexperience with unschooling as well as on the false assumptions about learning that their school experiences taught them years ago. When the present generation of unschooling children become parents themselves, they will have more confidence and trust in the process. As I often tell my clients, today’s generation of parents have it the hardest, because they have to trust a process that they themselves never experienced directly.

Here are ten tips for making a smooth transition:

1. Let the Child Lead
Parents new to unschooling often feel overwhelmed by the assumption that everything is in their hands. They believe that it is up to them to choose the topics for each day. If that assumption were true, most unschooling parents would burn out quickly and send their children to school! Fortunately, the truth is just the opposite. The best way to help a child learn is to let him have the reins – he will naturally know what is of most interest to him at every moment, and will make that clear to you. Trust that your child knows best what he is ready and eager to learn, and then help him to find whatever materials or information he needs. The best analogy is to a reference librarian, who waits until he knows what the library patron is looking for, and then helps him to find it. No reference librarian tells the patron what to learn, though he may make suggestions once he knows the patron’s interests. Relax and let your child take the lead. Once this concept is fully understood, unschooling becomes easy and joyous.

2. Everything is Educational
Many parents just starting to unschool feel intimidated by the assumption that educational activities have to be scheduled into each day. Because they have attended school, they learned the invalid but relentlessly taught lesson that some things are “educational” and others are not. Nothing could be further from the truth. Everything in life is educational. Every single thing the child does brings learning, and the more fun he is having, the easier the process will be. Even those subjects that seem hard to schoolchildren, such as grammar and math, will come about naturally as they are needed in real life.

The child knows best what to learn.

3. Freedom is Essential for Learning
Forget everything school taught you about the importance of “maintaining focus”. Keeping children focused in school (even if it takes drugs to do it) meets the teacher’s needs – it makes it easier for the teacher to manage the classroom. But the use of force – of any kind – interferes with learning, because the child feels coerced, monitored and limited. Children are naturally aware of many things at once – there is so much for them to learn and think about. We should treasure their spontaneity and curiosity, not force them to stay focused on what we think they should be learning. An unschooling child stays focused on whatever interests him in that moment – and that is the best way to learn.

4. Rest is as Important as Activity
Research shows that significantly more learning takes place when there are rest breaks in the learning activity (adult subjects given breaks remember more material than those given no breaks). The human brain needs time to process information. Don’t assume that the child is ever “doing nothing” or “just playing”. Just because we can’t see the processing doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Activity and rest are equally important to the learning process. A child recuperating from school or other stressful experiences will need even more “downtime” to recover.

5. Trust Your Child’s Built-in Timetable
Learning schedules and school timetables interfere with learning. If someone starts to warn you that your child “has to learn…” just tell yourself that he will learn it, at exactly the moment he’s ready to learn it, in the way that feels most right to him. Even if we could somehow force a child to learn something sooner, he might forget it, or worse, lose interest in that subject. Isn’t it better for a child to learn to read when he most wants to do so, developing a lifelong love of reading, than being forced to learn at a younger age, growing into adulthood with an aversion toward reading in general? Schools focus so much on each school year, they seem to forget that the child is preparing for an entire lifetime – not just for next Friday’s test.

Everything in life is educational.

6. Freedom and Happiness Form the Best Foundation for Learning
Have no expectations about what an unschooling child should look like. An unschooling child will not look like a school child. She will not be intimidated by authority figures. She will look freer and happier, and will express her needs and feelings in more mature ways. Trust that the unschooling child is doing things naturally, and learning about life in the way children learned for millennia before public schools existed.

7. Trust Your Child’s Learning Style
Remember that each child has his own way of approaching learning, and whatever that way is, it’s the very best way for him. My son taught himself the alphabet by creating the letters with his whole body. I was glad he wasn’t in a classroom where he would have been told to sit down! Trust that your child’s learning style is the right one for him.

8. Remember that Unschooling is for You Too
The whole family can learn right along with the child. This time around, the learning will be more interesting and last much longer. Watching a child learn in a joyful and easy way can bring vicarious pleasure, helping the parents to heal from difficulties they experienced in school years ago. Topics that the parent grew to dislike in childhood can now be appreciated fully.

9. Enjoy the Freedom
Unschooling is freeing, not just for the child, but for the whole family. Unschooling families can enjoy quiet playgrounds during school hours, take family vacations in September, and introduce their children to people of all ages. The family is also freed from the tyranny of the daily school schedule.

10. Have fun!
Unschooling at its best is great fun for everyone. Be on the alert for books, toys, games and activities you think your child will enjoy. Make them available, but with no expectations or pressure. Films, board games, leisurely walks and outings with family and friends not only bring more learning but create the connection and trust that underlie the best learning environment.

If you can trust the unschooling process and trust your child, even when that feels like a leap of faith, you’ll soon learn how easy and joyful unschooling can be!

“Little children love the world. That is why they are so good at learning about it. For it is love, not tricks and techniques of thought, that lies at the heart of all true learning. Can we bring ourselves to let children learn and grow through that love?”

– John Holt,
How Children Learn

Jan Hunt, M.Sc., is a parenting and unschooling counselor and writer. She is the author of The Natural Child: Parenting From the Heart and the children’s book A Gift for Baby. Jan and her always-unschooled son Jason co-edited The Unschooling Unmanual and have run the Natural Child Project site and The Global Children’s Art Gallery at www.naturalchild.org since 1996. Jan can be reached at .