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.


  1. Wow, this is a wonderful post. It’s so great to hear about how your kids’ intrinsic motivation is continuing and developing into their older years–it seems too many schools fail to develop their students in that respect.

  2. Love this. It only took me 3 months of homeschooling before I made the transition to unschooling. I love this life of mine!

  3. So true, I couldn’t agree more!

  4. I am about to Unschool my daughter (9) and I am super excited about all the adventures! ( okay, a little nervous) would love to connect with you about what are the 3 best tips/advice you can give?

  5. Thanks Kerry, I love this. I love reading about unschoolers, yet I am still at the weary stage myself. You say your children learn on their own because you have provided a rich environment, if you don’t mind me asking, how much or how often are you offering up ideas? e.g. I see that my son enjoys writing and so I ask things like “would you like to learn more letters?” ” Would you like to learn how to write a sentence?” as a way to gauge what resources I need to provide.

  6. Peter Gray says:

    Great post, Kerry. Thank you. Implicit in what you say here is that you and your husband provide the context–a literate, numerate, and musical context–in which your child makes discoveries and learns on her own steam.

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