Homeschool, Homeschooling Methods, New to Homeschooling, Unschooling

Beginner’s Guide to Unschooling

Unschooling may be one of the more controversial topics in the world of homeschooling for a couple of reasons:

First, this method is so very different from how many of us grew up that (at least at first) it’s hard to trust. Second, it’s a method that is often very misunderstood.

Unschooling, also called Delight-Directed Learning or Child-Directed Learning, is often misunderstood. Find out what it's all about at!

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It’s not a method that will work for every family, and that’s ok; however, Unschooling works incredibly well for some, so it’s worth investigating. And even if you decide not to jump in the deep end with this method, there may be facets of it that are well worth implementing in your homeschool.

Those facets (or the full method) might just be the answer you’re looking for.

So let’s get started!

What is Unschooling?

Unschooling, also called “interest-driven” or “child-led” learning, was one of the movements that spurred the birth of modern homeschooling. It is the brainchild of John Holt, a teacher and educational reformer of the mid to late-20th century.

Holt started out as a teacher at rigorous schools, and he was excellent at what he did; however, as his years in the classroom went on, he noticed a huge disconnect between the learning he was looking to inspire in his students and the actual results. This troubled him greatly.

Holt’s Journey into Unschooling

In the late 1960s, Holt set out to study this disconnect and possible solutions, and he worked for several years to try to enact reform in the public school system. Sadly, his efforts were met with less-than-stellar responses.

So, he turned directly to families. He showed them how they could teach their own children to learn naturally and love it. His books, How Children Fail and How Children Learn, have now been designated as classics.

Boiled down to its foundation, Unschooling is the idea that children are naturally wired to learn and will do so when given the freedom to do so. This method gives children a “say” in what, how, and when they learn, capitalizing on their natural development and inclination.

Needless to say, it was a revolutionary idea that helped spur a way of life – homeschooling – for millions of families. However, even 40-50 years later, Unschooling is largely misunderstood. Some people love the idea, others are terrified by it.

What is Unschooling Not?

Because Unschooling does not really have a specific blueprint to follow, there are a lot of misconceptions about it. Instead of describing exactly what it is, it may be easier to describe what it is not.

  • It’s not a mindset that allows a child to have full autonomy over everything in their lives, taking the parent out of the equation.
  • It’s not allowing your child to do nothing but play video games and watch cartoons all day. (Although, if your child is a budding game designer or cartoonist, they might do so on a regular basis for research and comparison.)
  • It’s not letting your child off the hook, academically speaking, never requiring them to do anything they don’t “want” or “like” to do.

Unschooling is simply the idea of allowing your child to help determine what, how, when, and why they learn, at whatever level they are capable of. (Obviously, this varies by age.)

Rather than requiring your child to learn skills they are not developmentally ready for because the teacher’s manual says they ought to, an Unschooling mentality allows for the idea that children develop at their own pace…and taking advantage of that is likely to help them learn.

Unschooling - Learning From a Student's Point of View

But What Does It Actually Look Like?

Well, that’s a hard question to answer…because the answer is different for every family. In our family, it even looked different at different stages. Essentially, though, it was a mixture of working with my son and anticipating his needs.

I worked with him to determine what he would learn, when, and how. When he was young, he worked well with Unit Studies, but he often wanted to take the subjects far beyond what any particular study provided.

I would just ask him what he wanted to learn about, and he would name off topics – anything from human anatomy to dinosaurs to the difference between Egyptian and Greek mythology – and we would work together to set a basic schedule.

Then, I would get to work. I researched, ordered tons of books from the library, made lists of websites and Youtube videos (this was long before Netflix came on the scene), and found experiments and craft projects that fit our store of supplies. Then I typed it up or wrote it down (whatever helped the creative juices flow at the time) and had everything ready to go.

Letting Your Child Have the Freedom to Learn

I found early on that my son isn’t the type of learner to stick to a lesson plan simply because it’s there. He’s a voracious learner who thinks in very out-of-the-box ways. He sees connections and patterns that most other people don’t.

It sounds like he’d be every teacher’s dream (and he is really fun to teach). But trying to lesson plan for him was, at times, like trying to align the cosmos.

So, I gave up on structuring out his studies day by day and learned to anticipate what might work. Then, I made it available for him to “feast” on. And he did.

If a library book that I picked got an “ehh…” reaction, it went back to the library. If it was one that he wanted to read over and over again, or if it had a ton of cool projects that he wanted to try, it got renewed as many times as the library would let us.

I kept a fairly well-stocked supply of art supplies, odds, and ends that he could use for just about anything, and he did. I bookmarked sites that he could safely peruse and showed him how to access the folders.

We played review games, made up stories, and spent lots of time reading aloud and discussing. He made tons of lapbooks and notebooks, because they fit his learning needs at that time.

Unschooling Older Kids

As he got older, I allowed him to choose his areas of study and curriculum options. A couple of times a year, we would sit down with a whiteboard and figure out what he wanted to study for each subject. I determined the overall subjects – we are going to do math, English, history, science, Bible, and a foreign language, along with whatever electives he chose.

But within those categories, he pretty much got free reign. He told me what he wanted to do. I found curriculums that met our budget and his requirements, and he chose the ones he wanted.

And he almost always chose something that was far more creative and rigorous than what I would have planned. Odd how that happens!

Life of a Homeschool Mom

Unschooling as a Way of Life

Today, as a senior in college, this is a habit he’s kept. He knows full well how to learn in a university setting, but he still has his side projects.

They might range from studying the messaging of Disney movies over the past several decades via Youtube clips (which is really kind of fascinating, once you dig into it) to unwinding from finals with downloaded lectures on sociopolitical theory. (Not even kidding – it’s what he finds relaxing. Works for me!)

However, how we implemented Unschooling will probably look completely different from how anyone else does. And that’s kind of the point of the method. We did what we did because it worked for us. It met his specific learning needs and was doable for me as a teacher.

Your child’s learning needs will likely be different, your family is different, and that’s perfectly fine. Do what works.

Oh the Options - Unschooling - Making Connections

Resources for Unschooling

First, be sure to check out my Pinterest boards. I keep them updated daily and check every link before pinning.You know you’re going to get a steady stream of the good stuff!

Here are some books to check out on Unschooling, for further research:

84048: How Children Learn How Children Learn
By John Holt / Pearson Learning


206946: Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book of Homeschooling Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book of Homeschooling
By John Holt / Running PressMore and more children are being homeschooled. Now expanded, this classic work features up-to-date legal, financial, and logistical advice. With advice and ideas that lean towards unschooling, and certainly away from school-at-home, chapters on living with children, serious play, and work will fascinate and encourage parents. Plenty of personal anecdotes, letters, and examples of real-life people who are discovering the joys of natural, unstructured, child-led learning are included, providing a fascinating look into the lives of other homeschoolers. 334 pages, softcover.

512764: The Unschooling Handbook The Unschooling Handbook
By Mary Griffith / Random House Unschooling, a by-product of the widespread homeschooling movement, is a unique approach to education-one that uses children’s natural curiosity to propel them into a world of learning. This practical guide reveals the secrets of unschooling success even as it address the misconceptions and criticism unschoolers may encounter.

801699: Home Grown: Adventures in Parenting Home Grown: Adventures in Parenting
By Ben Hewitt / Roost BooksTaking on the assumption that children must be taught to learn, Ben Hewitt’s Home Grown weaves together anecdotes from his life unschooling his sons on 40-acre homestead in Vermont. A chronicle of one family’s journey of discovering how they want to move through the world and stay connected to nature and place, he also brings in supporting opinions and data from various experts on educational methods and the importance of developing a soulful connection to the world we inhabit. 166 pages, softcover.

Wrapping It Up

I’m curious: have you ever tried, or considered trying Unschooling? What was your experience? What questions do you have about it? Comment below, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

*Please note that your confirmation email will come from Jen at A Helping Hand Homeschool ( Please “white list” this email address so you don’t miss it!

Related Posts:

A Beginner’s Guide to Traditional Homeschooling

Beginner’s Guide to Classical Homeschooling

The Beginner’s Guide to Charlotte Mason

Beginner’s Guide to Unit Studies (+ FREE Unit Study Planner!)

A Beginner’s Guide to Eclectic Homeschooling










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