What is unschooling?

Recently I read a post in a parenting forum where someone was asking about the practice of unschooling – what is it and how is it done? Many of the posts from people who identified as unschoolers were not quite in line with how I would describe unschooling, particularly radical unschooling… And it got me thinking then, about how I would respond to someone curious about unschooling. So here it is, my version of (radical) unschooling as it stands in our third official year as unschoolers with a 7.5-year-old, 3.75-year-old and a 21-month-old.

Unschooling is…

…a practice of life

Unschooling rests on the belief that children are capable of learning through life, without the need to be ‘taught’. So follows that unschoolers just continue on with ‘life’ once their children are of school age. The children continue to be involved in the functioning of a household and remain active members of their community. They continue to learn driven by their own intrinsic motivation to learn.

…seeing the world as a matrix of endless possibilities for learning

Knowledge and learning are not limited to a curriculum set out by a handful of policy makers. Unschooling is the realization that there are no limits on what, when and how you learn, who you learn it with and where you learn it. Unschooling learning is more matrix-like. Learning is not linear (even though school curriculums try to make it look like it is) but rather it forms a rhizomatic structure – twists and turns, connections and parallels, off-shoots and lines of flight (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987). Children can follow a series of inter-connected ideas endlessly. They can do this intensely or at a slower pace, for however long they like. No one tells children that some forms of knowledge are more or less valuable by the amount of time one is allowed to spend time learning it.

…an active, hands-on, dedicated partnership with your children

It requires lots of time paying attention to your child/ren; meeting their needs (comfort, nourishment, emotional, physical, spiritual, intellectual); listening to them in the many ways that children can/do communicate with us; partnering with them as a team to support them in life; providing opportunities for joy and learning; and being reliable, trustworthy and respectful of the child/ren in your team. [For further clarity, unschooling is not lazy/laisse faire parenting. It does not mean that if your child spends hours a day using an iPad or a laptop for example, that the parent then has time off, rather this is an opportunity to learn with/alongside your child while they engage with digital technologies].

…finding ways to live life joyfully and peacefully

Unschooling families are seekers of peace and joy as daily, weekly and year-long goals. Learning to live peacefully and joyfully takes practice and dedication. It requires parents to let go of conventional parenting ideas and to rethink relationships with their children. One way that parents achieve this is trying to avoid thinking or speaking words or phrases that move them away from peace and joy, e.g. ‘bedtime battle’ or ‘struggle to feed’. It is also recognizing that many of those conventional parenting practices are based on methods of controlling children through manipulation, force and arbitrary limits. Those parenting practices will not get anyone closer to joy and peace. Partnership will. Understanding will. Respect will.

…different in each family

Unschooling works with some key principles as outlined above however, how each family practices unschooling based on those principles will be different. Social media brings amazing opportunities to share ideas and insights into peoples’ lives as they unschool, however it also carries the risk of only showing the beautiful, likable images of unschooling life. Some/many aspects of unschooling are not Instagram worthy, or cannot be captured in a picture at all, and I’d be willing to tip that it’s these undocumented moments that are the most valuable in an unschooling life. Sure, there are some great ideas for things to do with children, experiences to offer, resources to provide, ways to set up your home, but what will make unschooling work is not the pretty stuff but the principles you live by. A day in your sloppy house clothes and your children in third-time hand-me-downs with baked on stains and birds nest hair, spending time playing together, connecting together, thinking, dreaming, eating some yummy stuff that nourishes in one way or another, being your child’s trusted partner, is far closer to unschooling than a photo posted to Instagram of a child playing with the latest Montessori inspired resources.

…looking inward, as parents, at ourselves and at our ‘baggage’

Deschooling is often a big part of unschooling, particularly for the parents. Deschooling does require parents to examine themselves, to think on their own deeply held beliefs about parenting and learning. Deschooling can be hard, and it can be painful, to uncover our wounds and bring them into the light. Questioning why we think the way we do and then examining our deeply held beliefs with an unschooling lens is part of an ongoing process of moving closer and closer to unschooling. Leaving behind parenting practices that aim to control children can be confronting and they often stem from our own fears as we once experienced being controlled ourselves. Realizing that we can’t ever control another person is a big aspect of deschooling and while it sounds simple, it can be ever so elusive as our society has us conditioned so well into believing that children need to be, and can be, controlled. This one is definitely a work in progress, for me and many other unschoolers.


Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1987). A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. London: Continuum.

2 thoughts on “What is unschooling?”

  1. Wow, thank you for writing this. That last paragraph in particular is the biggest truth + hurdle I have in my family. I’m going to send this to my husband as I can never ever put it so eloquently as you have done!


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