How We Became Unschoolers

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by Kerry McDonald

When my husband and I first committed to homeschooling when my oldest was just two-years-old, I thought for sure that by the time she was five we would be following an age-appropriate, established curriculum–at least for certain subject areas–and would have time allocated each day for “teaching & learning.” In those early days, when I would talk to the homeschooling moms of older kids at homeschool park days or similar meet-ups, I thought those “unschooly” moms were a little “out there.” They were a bit too radical, I thought, just letting their kids do whatever they wanted, not requiring mastery in certain areas at certain times, not establishing expectations for academic performance. Radical.

And now here I am. Radical and out there. And loving every minute. (Ok, almost every minute.)

It wasn’t that I woke up one day and decided to become radical. It wasn’t that I was trying to make a point or hop on a bandwagon. It was that I actually saw my children learning, all on their own, following their own developing interests, without my instruction. I watched as their natural, innate childhood curiosity guided them to discover and explore and widen their imaginations. I watched as my oldest learned how to read, not because I sat with her to review letters and sounds and sight words, but because she was surrounded by literacy and was ready to read. I watched as she grew increasingly interested in mathematical concepts, not from using a math curriculum or reviewing math problems, but because she was surrounded by numeracy and wanted to know more about how numbers and patterns could be applied. I watched as she became increasingly interested in learning the piano, in practicing and experimenting, not because I told her to practice or because her piano teacher asked her to, but because she was excited about making music. I saw her doing things, learning things, mastering things that I would never have thought to teach her–and that maybe if I had taught her, might not have resulted in so much originality and skill.

I realized, through the fascinating process of watching my children learn, to trust them: to trust a child’s natural drive to know and create, to explore and synthesize. I realized that “unschooling” allows this natural learning to occur in many unanticipated and meaningful ways by allowing our children to show us the way: to reveal to us their passions, their gifts, and to constantly astound us with their capabilities when given the time and space to develop them naturally.

I learned that I am not my children’s teacher. I am their follower.


Kerry McDonald, M.Ed, lives and learns in Cambridge, Mass. with her husband and four never-been-schooled children. She blogs about natural learning, natural parenting, and natural living at City Kids Homeschooling.