What Is Unschooling?

Updated on January 8, 2020
Kierstin Gunsberg profile image

A former homeschooler, Kierstin is now homeschooling her own daughters.

What is Unschooling?

In a nutshell, unschooling is more of a lifestyle movement than it is an educational niche. It's a way of doing life under the philosophy that children and adolescents learn through play and by real world experiences rather than within the boundaries of a classroom, bookwork, etc.

I was unschooled and I'm unschooling my own children. Here's how it works:


The Main Differences Between Classical Homeschooling and Unschooling

Classical Homeschooling
Follows a curiculum
Doesn't follow a curriculum (but might use pieces of a curriculum if it benefits the interest of the unschooler)
Follows grade levels
Disregards grade levels
Engages mostly in bookwork
Only engages in bookwork to supplement the interests of the unschooler (some kids really thrive on bookwork, my kids included!)

How Unschooling Works

Some people have the misunderstanding that because unschoolers don't follow a curriculum and allow their children to decide what they want to learn, when they want to learn it, that unschooling means a lack of education or that kids who are homeschooled this way don't learn basics like math, reading and writing.

But that's not how it works.

Instead, unschooling operates with the intention and belief that by allowing children and adolescents to explore their own interests on their own terms, they'll learn how to do these things (adding, subtracting, spelling, reading...) as a byproduct of engaging in the world around them through interest led learning.

Still the whole concept begs the question...

How Do Kids Learn if You Don't Show Them How?

In my own experience I've found that there are three instances when true learning takes place and I consider these three things the foundation of unschooling:

  1. Learning through play
  2. Learning by doing
  3. Learning through experience

Learning Through Play

The children in our town have had two snow days this week and it's not even Thanksgiving yet! When the kids around us have a snow day I'm inclined to send my own kids out into the snow to play too. Here's a handful of things my kids learned this morning out in the snow through playing:

  • If you bury your face in the snow, it starts to freeze.
  • Heat from your body, from the sun, etc. warms and melts the snow, turning it from a solid to a liquid (and sometimes gas! Steam!)
  • If you take your mittens off when it's 19 degrees you're going to regret it, quickly.

So here, my kids learned science fundamentals plus some important life fundamentals all in the hour they spent playing in the snow without my guidance (but with my supervision).

The Science of Learning Through Play

Studies show that when young people are playing, they're learning because they're actively engaged in what they're doing.

Think of it this way, if you've just read an academic paper on soccer and now you're going to play soccer, which experience is going to teach you more about soccer?

It's the same for children. They can sit in a classroom and be shown slides of how gravity works or they can be given a basket of blocks and see it in action as they play. The young mind is going to take in more as their too-tall tower comes crashing down than they would staring at a picture of the earth and the moon.

Examples of Learning Through Play

Possible Learning Outcomes
Playing with Barbies/Figurines/Dollhouse
Social interactions, appropriate responses, fine motor skills, language skills
Painting and coloring
Exercising creativity, becoming familar with color names, learning what colors are created from mixing other colors together
Doing puzzles or playing games
Logic and reasoning, social interactions (if played with others), learning about objectives and rules

Children do not need to be made to learn about the world, or shown how. They want to, and they know how.

— John Holt
Getting ready to head to the grocery store? Have your child write the grocery list. There's spelling and handwriting skills right there.
Getting ready to head to the grocery store? Have your child write the grocery list. There's spelling and handwriting skills right there. | Source

Learning by Doing

Just as learning through play is a key way to make connections, learning by doing is just as beneficial and that's something unschooling offers a lot of. Unless you're an instructor yourself, most of us aren't spending 8 hours a day in a classroom or in the halls. Instead, we're usually doing something very niche. I'm a writer and I spent most of my schooling years being allowed to simply write.

Had my parents not fostered my interest in writing and all that comes with it (a need to understand technology, to hone my skills and to learn by doing these things for the majority of my adolescence) I wouldn't be as equipped to do what I love so much now.

Examples of Learning by Doing

What Might Be Learned
Knitting or crocheting
How to knit or crochet of course, fine motor skills, meditiation
Science concepts, hygiene concepts, expanded language
Playing video games
Technology skills, storyline concepts, social interractions (if played with others), healthy competition, boundaries (when to turn the game off and move on to something else)
Creativity, measurements, how to use creative tools safely, how to reuse reduce recycle through the materials
Physics, how to enjoy exercise and movement, music exploration
Writing stories
Phonics, spelling, letter recognition, plot recognition

Everything I am interested in, from cooking to electronics, is related to math. In real life you don’t have to worry about integrating math into other subjects. In real life, math already is integrated into everything else.

— Anna Hoffstrom
When kids are given the space to pursue natural independence their confidence grows.
When kids are given the space to pursue natural independence their confidence grows. | Source

Learning Through Experience

The last fundamental of unschooling and truly, of homeschooling is learning through experience. This was my favorite part of being homeschooled and my favorite part of homeschooling my own kids. We learn a lot of things in school and let's face it, 80% of it is total BS that doesn't carry long into adulthood.

Think about everything you've done so far today. Did you fold a load of laundry, cancel an appointment, boil a pot of spaghetti, shop for a birthday party, feed your dog and email your boss?

When did you learn how to do those things?

The earlier on we learn how to do these basic, boring things the less intimidating they feel when our parents aren't around to guide us through them. This is the "why" of learning through experience. Kids have a natural tendency to want to do the same things we do, in their own way (like getting dressed, picking their food and choosing their own friends) and unschooling allows the time to indulge this need.

Examples of Learning Through Experience

How to Implement It
Caring for a pet
Start with allowing your child to feed their pet breakfast
Talking on the phone
Facetime a favorite cousin
Getting a snack
Set safe, developmentally approproiate snacks within reach of your child (we keep ours in a lazy susan in a bottom cabinet along with bowls and utensils)
Allow your child to adjust the water temperature while standing outside of the tub, then have them get in once they feel it's comfortable.
Have your child write a list, hand money to the cashier or find products in the shopping app
Getting dressed
Let your child pick out their outfit for the next day before bed. Check the weather forecast with them to help them make weather appropriate choices.

Questions About Unschooling

Does unschooling mean just letting your kids do whatever they want?

Yes, but not like you'd think. My kids want to get up every single morning and craft before breakfast is even going. I usually make them clean up any crafts that didn't get picked up from the day before, before I let them start crafting. It's about encouraging their interests with healthy boundaries and responsibility.

Why is unschooling legal?

Because it's not equal to educational neglect. Unschooling doesn't mean leaving a child to their own devices. Instead, it we study the things that interest them and through those interests, or by using those interests as a tool, important academics are learned.

Is unschooling or homeschooling expensive?

It really doesn't have to be, especially now! When I was growing up, my mom invested a lot of money into paying for lessons, purchasing learning materials and joining homeschool groups. These days, you can find free homeschool groups on Facebook, take lessons on apps or through YouTube and find a bunch of free educational resources online and through your library. I spend very little on homeschooling. I also save money not having to purchase items, special projects or field trip tickets for school (I mean yeah, we buy those things but only when and what we want to).

Do unschoolers ever use textbooks or workbooks?

Yes, I have a whole shelf of them and my children love to use them in addition to flash cards. We like to pull them out while we have a snack or while lounging.

How can you document/keep record of unschooling?

I write down what we did that day in a daily planner so I have a record of it for transcripts.

© 2019 Kierstin Gunsberg


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    • Kierstin Gunsberg profile imageAUTHOR

      Kierstin Gunsberg 

      7 weeks ago from Traverse City, Michigan

      I feel you on the math, Ashly! I never liked it either. But part of that is that I didn't enjoy my math workbooks. As an adult I no longer avoid math because I'm free to approach it in a way that works for me. I think there's something to be gleaned from that for children too :)

    • AshlyChristen profile image

      Ashly Christen 

      7 weeks ago from Illinois

      I like the idea of unschooling, but in a way i think it depends on family structure, the kids, and grade level. I was partially homeschooled. But I struggled in math. There are some things that need extra encouragement. If i was given the choice I probably would have skipped math all together lol.

    • jennkesler profile image


      8 weeks ago from Michigan, USA

      Very informative article!

      Learning through play and experience seem like activities every child should do. These concepts often get overlooked by schools. It seems to me that all schooling should incorporate learning through play and experience.

      Great article.

    • JC Scull profile image

      JC Scull 

      3 months ago from Gainesville, Florida

      Very interesting concept. Good article.

    • Bushra Iqbal profile image

      Anya Ali 

      4 months ago from Rabwah, Pakistan

      Good idea!

    • Kierstin Gunsberg profile imageAUTHOR

      Kierstin Gunsberg 

      7 months ago from Traverse City, Michigan

      Amit, it's no issue to attend college after graduating as an unschooler/homeschooler. You'll just need a transcript (I also have an article about how to obtain one) and, if the college you choose requires it, to take a standardized test or entrance exam. That really varies on where you go to college though.

    • profile image


      7 months ago

      Great work but what about higher education that needs a formal degree?


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