How to Think Like An Unschooler

No matter our “homeschool style,” most of us center our homeschool on our children. Our common goal is to graduate children who are prepared for the world in their hearts, minds, and souls.

In a child-centered education, your child’s learning style, special interests, and academic and physical capabilities are all taken into consideration. Even a parent using a strict scope and sequence with her children can make adjustments for individual children who do not exactly fit the mold of a homeschool program.

Unschoolers take child-centered education one step further and provide a “child-led” education. A child-led education can include a structured environment; however, it will wait for a child to express a desire to learn specific subjects. An unschooling parent will involve her child directly in making decisions on how to go about learning a subject once an interested has been established.

Unschooling does not mean non-schooling. It means being actively engaged in your child’s interests and needs. It means being in tune with her learning style and capabilities. It means making sure she has all the necessary resources when she does express an interest in specific “subjects.”

All of the unschooled students I’ve had the pleasure to meet are knowledgeable and well-adjusted young men and women. Because they took ownership of their education at a young age, they continue to have the desire to grow and learn into their adult years.

Even if a child-led education is not for your family, even if you follow the strictest of school programs, there is still a lot you can glean from the unschool movement.

Here is my Top-10 List of what the rest of us can learn from unschoolers:

Find joy in learning. Learning should never be drudgery. We want to encourage children to learn on their own, years after they graduate and leave the nest. Emotions are contagious. If your children see your joy when you learn new things, they’ll copy it. Make sure you find your own joy in teaching your children new lessons.

Apply learned material to real life. Make sure your children see how their lessons relate to the world outside of the classroom. Studying should never be about “passing the test.” It should be about preparing for life beyond school.

Look for intrinsic motivation. Ask yourself what motivates your child to learn. Perhaps it is studying favorite topics, private reading time, online classes, collaborating on projects with friends, or sharing his progress publicly. Let’s use the latter as an example: practicing piano requires dedication and hard work. However, playing a concert for your family, ending with much applause, can be great fun as well as a great motivator.

Figure out your child’s learning style and focus on it. Every child learns differently, even within the same family. If one child is a hands-on learner and another is a visual learner, you may need to provide those children with different resources.

The world is your classroom. Homeschooling doesn’t mean education only takes place in your home. Get outside, discover all the opportunities your community offers, take day trips, embark on educational vacations, go on adventures. Something as simple as a side trip to a construction site can be educational. Get up and get moving.

Strewing. This is a popular unschooling term. Strewing simply means leaving material of interest around for children to discover. Strewing may include books, toys, science kits, and more. For example, if you have a reluctant reader who is deeply interested in the Middle Ages, you may leave fun books about the era next to her favorite chair. Or if you have a child who loves science, you may leave interesting rock specimens on the bathroom counter. Change out the strewed items from time to time.

Teach your children how to find learning resources. When a child shows a special interest, show him how to learn more. Make him an integral part of the process. For example, if you have a child interested in computer programming you can begin by doing research online, talking to friends in the field, and visiting a computer programming business. Then decide upon the best course of action to learn programming. This may include an apprenticeship, online course, or community college.

Promote curiosity. Ask questions of your children. Be patient in answering their questions. (The only dumb question is the question unasked.) If you don’t know an answer, let them see the spark in your eye when you say, “Let’s look for the answer together” or “I can’t wait to see how this turns out”.

Learn beside your children. In a school setting parents are, for the most part, removed from the learning process. Sometimes we see this in homeschooling too. In using a program, we may forgo studying the lessons ourselves. In a co-op or online class we may ask a teacher to take full responsibility for our child’s progress. We still need to be actively engaged in those situations. There is nothing wrong with seeking outside sources, especially in subjects we are not comfortable teaching ourselves or when a child prefers to self teach. However, we should still express an interest, learn beside them, ask questions, and follow up to make sure our children are getting the most out of their course of study.

Have fun! It’s perfectly okay to have fun in your homeschool. Yes, learning is hard work but there is no reason it can’t be fun too.

Unschooling advocate Sandra Dodd describes a typical “unschool” day as “the best ever Saturday … the day people dream about when they are stuck in school.” She also says that unschooling is about creating and maintaining an environment in which natural learning takes place and flourishes. I believe that is something all of us can accomplish no matter our homeschool style.

Copyright 2015 Maureen Wittmann.

This article first appeared on and is used with permission.

Author: Maureen Wittmann

Maureen Wittmann and her husband are parents to seven children, who have always been homeschooled. She is the author of For the Love of Literature (Ecce Homo Press) as well as coeditor and contributing author to The Catholic Homeschool Companion (Sophia Institute Press) and A Catholic Homeschool Treasury (out of print). Her articles have appeared in Our Sunday Visitor, Homeschooling Today, Heart and Mind, Catholic Home Educator, New Covenant, Latin Mass, Catholic Faith, Catholic Digest, and more.