Ten Tips for New Unschooling Parents

by Jan Hunt
Parents new to unschooling often have mixed feelings. While they may be excited about this educational choice, they're left with one question: "Now what?" Because unschooling is different for every family, and even for each child, there are no set guidelines. And since few modern parents were unschooled in their own childhood, they may feel uncertain about how to begin, and wonder about their ability to create a rewarding learning environment. This uncertainty is based not only on the parent's lack of personal experience with unschooling, but also on the many false assumptions about learning that their school experiences instilled in them years before.

When today's unschooling children become parents themselves, they will naturally have confidence in this approach. Most unschooling parents have to trust a process that they themselves never experienced directly. Fortunately, unschooling is such a joyful process that this trust develops naturally. Parents can move quickly from "Now what?" to "This is so easy!"

Here are ten tips for making a smooth transition:

1. Let the Child Lead

New unschooling parents can feel overwhelmed by the assumption that everything is in their hands. They assume that it is up to them to choose the topics for each day. If that were true, most unschooling parents would burn out quickly. Fortunately, the reality is just the opposite. The best way to help a child learn is to respect and support her need for freedom - she will know what is of most interest to her at every moment, and will naturally make that clear. Trust that your child knows best what she is ready and eager to learn, and then help her to find whatever materials and information she needs.

Perhaps the best analogy is to a reference librarian, who waits until she knows what the library patron is looking for, and then helps her to find it. No reference librarian tells the patron what to learn, though she may make suggestions once she knows the patron's interests. Relax and let your child take the lead!

2. Everything is Educational
Parents who are just starting to unschool can feel intimidated by the assumption that educational activities must 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 about learning, and the more fun he is having, the easier the process will be. Even those subjects that seem hard for schoolchildren, such as grammar and math, will come about easily and naturally as they are needed in real life.
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 school system's needs - it makes it easier for teachers to manage the classroom. But the use of force - of any kind - interferes with learning, because the child feels coerced, monitored and frustrated. 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 expect them to stay focused on what we think they should be learning. An unschooling child stays happily focused on whatever interests her in that moment - and that is the best way to learn anything.

4. Rest is as Important as Activity
Research has consistently found that significantly more learning takes place when there are rest breaks in the activity (adults 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 parts of the learning process. A child recuperating from school or other stressful experiences will also need downtime to recover.

5. Trust Your Child's Built-in Timetable
School schedules and expectations often interfere with learning. An unschooling child will learn what he needs to know, at exactly the moment he is ready, and in the way that feels most right to him. Because schools push children to learn things without regard to their current interests, students can develop a lifelong aversion to those subjects. When a child learns about something when he is most interested, that interest can last a lifetime. Schools focus so much on their current agenda, they seem to forget that the child is preparing for life - not just for next Friday's test.

6. Happiness Forms the Best Foundation for Learning
Have no expectations about what an unschooling child should look like. She 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 developing in the most natural and beneficial way, 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 unique 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 each letter 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, whatever it may be, is the right one for him.

8. Unschooling is for You Too
Unschooling does not only benefit the child - the whole family can learn together. Watching a child learn with eagerness and delight can help a parent to heal from difficulties experienced in school years ago. Topics that the parent grew to dislike in school can now be more fully understood and appreciated. In this way, unschooling parents can rediscover the natural love of learning they were born with.

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 the fall, and introduce their children to people of all ages and backgrounds. The family is also freed from the rigid school schedule and relentless homework assignments that can cause unnecessary stress for everyone. Parents can then focus on more meaningful and enjoyable family activities that build love and connection.

10. Have Fun!
Unschooling at its best is great fun for everyone. Take your cues from your child. 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 enhance the connection and trust that are essential to the best learning environment.

Unschooling may feel like a leap of faith at first, but you'll soon discover that it is far more than just an educational choice - it's a way of living with children with full respect, trust and compassion.

"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., offers phone counseling worldwide, with a focus on parenting and unschooling. She is the Director of The Natural Child Project and author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart and A Gift for Baby.
More articles by Jan Hunt     More articles on learning
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