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Monday, September 22, 2008

What Is Unschooling?

Unschooling - State Mandates - My Story -
Can Christians Unschool?

Unschooling is child led learning! It is not dictated by mom, by "grade level" by "shoulds" or "should nots". It is simply following your child. I used to use this example....just because babies learn to walk, does that mean that at 10 months you start FORCING them to? holding them up and berating them when they fall down? Because SOME kids start at 10 months? Or, do you follow their lead, encourage them, give them time, give them tools, as they appear ready?!!

That's the way it should be with all learning! It shouldn't be forced, it shouldn't be because some administrator who doesn't know your child, dictates it to be time...this homeschooling business is all about our individual children!!

If they want to learn about rockets for 5 years, or 5 minutes, that's AOK with me! If they want to learn about the American Revolution in 3rd grade, who am I to say, sorry, that's a 4th grade topic?!?!

This is from a post I sent to my local support group last year:

I call myself "the door-opener". I'll open a million doors for the kids and see what interests them and then I'm "the resource-gatherer" and "the taxi" and "the money-machine". But, don't forget I'm also often "the co-learner".

I do not teach during certain hours. We fall into an always learning category. That doesn't meant they are always learning (just 90% of the time!), but it means I am always on the prowl for educational inspirations. Numerous examples:

  • Dressing room of Walmart..they give you those number placards for items...when my son was 4, he'd run from door to door and read the number, saying it aloud. I ENCOURAGED him to do this. Number recognition! Does nottttttttt need to come solely from a workbook.

  • Speed limit oldest learned his double digit numbers and concept of adding while we were in the car...,"What's two five? 25! Whats 2 + 5? 7!"

  • When we're eating apples, I point out that they are RED

  • When we're drawing houses I point out they are square with a triangle on top

These are little kid examples, but you will find if you get in that mode, the info you "give" gets age appropriate. The other day my oldest was talking about LSD and it's molecular structure (ok, this sounds really geeky...I'll explain more...he's got this screen saver that shows molecular structures of all sorts of's tied in with a study on the periodic table of elements..ANYWAY!) I started explaining about nerve inhibitors and that's why people on it can set themselves on fire etc and "not feel" anything, which led to talking about amputees etc etc. We're always learning!!!

Now, no, we aren't always actively pursing "molecular structures" and such...we have lots of play time, but a lot of our "play" is also learning.

I'll give you a big kid and a little kid example of playing=learning.
  • Little kid...I have this "cash box" and has all sorts of money in it, bills and coins. My 6 yr old LOVESSS to play "McDonalds" One of us "drives up" and orders, the other is the cashier. At first it was all about coin recognition, front and back and coins' worth. NOW its just starting to be about making correct change now that we know its value.

  • Big older son loved NeoPets. They offered him his own page and an HTML guide and he took it from there....he "played" and built his own page and learned HTML. NOW he knows HTML, XHTML, XML, and CSS. He has just taken over MY websites and is actually more advanced than me (I get yelled at now for my "antiquated ways").

Last year my oldest son's interests were the computer (mostly website building and blogging) and Japanese. We listened to Japanese music, he bought Japanese writing utensils and practiced writing, he made spreadsheets with all the different words he knows, and the various sets of characters (dialects? I dunno!) cooked Japanese foods, read Japanese for Dummies, the list goes on and on!

This year, he is "taking a break from Japanese" (Thank GOD!) and more working on programming and computer graphics. He is currently running "dual operating systems" on his computer, Windows and Linux, he has torn apart and rebuilt not only our old computer, but his BRAND NEW ONE (gasp!!!) and re-did mine and saved/transferred all the data when mine crashed. He knows so much more than I do! He surpassed me in website building last year, now knows and uses CSS and XML ("HTML is so OLD , mom!!! Soon, no one's going to be able to read your pages")

He has many interests and abilities that astound me. He loves to read the Left Behind Series. His knowledge of Revelations supersedes mine, and is actually embarrassing! He laughingly told me that OF course there are dragons in the bible, haven't I read revelations?:!?!? We recently purchased the Tim LaHaye study "Revelation Unveiled" and Brian will be attending the upcoming Dare To Share, which is centered on Revelations this year!

I'm telling you, no matter what the topic/interest is...I can find resources for it! One son LOVES comic books. He loves the format, the way they flow.....During a trip to an old Fort, I found Epic Battles of the Civil War comics...totally cool! A friend mentioned that there are Classics in Comic Book format...and recently I found books of the Bible in Comic Book format! The Book of John.

Now you're going to ask me, "What if my child wants to go to college?" These are the types of things EACH family must decide for each child…you will have to decide on what to do to “play the game”…be it transcripting, be it taking certain classes, earning credits, whatever it will need…that is unschooling in its prime…working your way towards your self-imposed goal…but these are just that, self-imposed! Not mandated by your state.

I would encourage you, even within your close family, in-laws, cousins, those who question this lifestyle…to think on a few things…how we learned best from baby 'till school-age…we learned the MOST important things, walking, talking, potty-training, and we did it all on the kid's own individual time tables. THEY led us, we used their cues (we didn’t try to potty train our 5 mo old, we sure didn’t have our 2 day old trying to walk, etc) Also…do some research on “teachable moments”…Even schools are seizing this as an important part of learning…and not just for preschoolers, but all across the ages.

Here's another great question: "What about our state laws regarding homeschooling? How can I unschool in my state?" As far as Child Protective Services is concerned, no agency SHOULD ask more from you than the state law requirements. Know your homeschool laws. Have them available to show and explain if questioned. Chances are they will overstep their bounds, but as long as you are following the law, you should be able to maintain your composure. If you are worried about having something to show someone…there are many ways to "show you're learning". Various local support groups offer standardized testing, the results come to YOU not a school…you could avail yourself of that yearly, every 2 years, every 4 years, whatever you want… could keep a loose portfolio with samples of work, book lists, brochures from field trips etc, you can transcript your lessons….there are books out there that teach you how to do that, or computer programs that do it for you once you input your info….most of this is all about learning to TALK THEIR TALK!

The story of how I started unschooling! When Brian was 3 we went to the beach. The plan for that day was 1/2 day visiting the lighthouse, then lunch, then the other half frolicking in the water. When we got there Brian had me read the plaque to him outside the lighthouse and it explained that the ORIGINAL lighthouse had fallen into the water. This was the 2nd lighthouse, but still very old. Brian at 3 was very bright, but I was also very involved in him and his needs. He got it in his little head he wanted to see a picture of the original one.

So, we "deviated" from the plan a bit and went to the local museum. Spent quite a while there, explaining his desire and researching. To no avail. Now, I had decisions to make..this kid is REALLY into this! But, I had PLANS! Man..the beach!!!! My plans...guess what I let win? It's about our kids and their education. It's not always easy. I had plans!!!! But I truly believe he had an interest laid on his heart and it was my duty to follow through. I did not squash his love of learning that day.

We then went to the local library and got the librarians help, but also to no avail. Finally we went to the historical society and met with some of their old timers, and signed up for their newsletter. The best we came to the original was an old brick that had been saved.

But, that one day sparked an interest in lighthouses that lasted for over 4 years! We ended up planning family vacations around lighthouses. We went to see Cape Hatteras while it was being moved. We watched the webcam of it being moved on a daily basis! ALL because I said "screw my plans" and let a 3 yr olds interests reign.

The end :) no , not really...the beginning! It's a change in our minds, in our ways..a BIG change from traditional school thinking!

Can Christians Unschool?
I fail to see why not! I have read articles that speak both pro and con, some con even citing scriptural references!

Here's my deal. Unschooling in my house is NOT UnParenting. See, this is where some differences may lie with "radical unschoolers" . Although I am pretty radical in my educational beliefs, they do not carry over to letting the children do whatever they want, whenever, with no consequences. THAT would be unbiblical!

I do not see anywhere in the Bible where it dictates that learning should happen in 45 minute increments ONLY .Monday-Friday. 8;30-3:30. Where one must test and match up with their peers throughout the nation, where only one curriculum is used, after being approved by administration, even if it doesn't work. I see NO biblical reason why we should strive to make our homes into miniature schools, and further, I see absolutely no social, economic or moral benefit to striving thusly!

What I do see as biblical is modeling correct behavior. Being diligent in our learning and training. But the word training alone is seen as so "schooly" when truly, we can train EASILY! Use their interests!! If you fall in love with a Japanese woman and really want to communicate with her, don't tell me you wouldnt be easily trained and INTERESTED in learning Japanese! The same can be said for my son when an interest is laid on his heart...the learning comes easily!

That brings us to...GOD LED INTERESTS!! I truly believe God gives us everything..what we do with it is another story! Too often God given interests are stifled in the rush to learn at an appropriate nationwide level. What about the child who watches Gorillas In The Mist and wants to be active in Gorilla preservation? This is about more than giving some extra time to an interest, this is about embracing things laid on our children's hearts, whether it is for 5 minutes or for 5 years. WE don't know God's plans, not for ourselves, and certainly not for our children!

Here's an interesting article...for more thought provoking ideas.. The "Discipleship" Methodology of Homeschooling

I hope the thought that lasts is...devotees of Christ will make their beliefs known to their children not just by scripture, but by life practices! This does not equate to needing to purchase a pre-packaged curriculum, but rather to leading a life with Christ in the center!!


  1. I am a christian mother that has been homeschooling my 9th grade daughter for 2 yrs through an online school. We just moved here to PA and have had not good experiences with the online school. I have been doing lots of reading and research on unschooling and I believe this is what I would like to procede to do with my daugther but PA seems to be really tough on this way of teaching. What can I do????

  2. Coming from the East Coast myself, I know that NY and PA are harder than other states to unschool in...but not impossible. And there are people doing it!

    I really suggest talking with other local PA unschoolers, see what they do...what kind of wording they use, maybe certain educational tracking software, etc. They've already created the don't have to re-create it!

    I found a PA Unschoolers email loop...hopefully that will be a good jumping off point for you.

    There is also a Radical Unschooling Group...they may be helpful with law questions...

    Best of luck!

  3. Thank you for this post, Elissa. I just started homeschooling my six-year-old this past fall, so am still so new to it. I'm still looking for the way to do it that's best for our family, but am leaning toward a combination of eclectic and unschooling methods. Your post is so encouraging.

  4. Thanks, Elissa, for writing your book with Teri, and also for being a champion for Christian unschooling. There's a link up at my site -- we'd love to have you join us. More and more Christian homeschoolers are learning to let go of the institutional structures so their kids can learn naturally!
    The link-up is at


  5. Thank you so much for this wonderful post. Parents should be encouraged to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit, not textbooks or methodologies first and foremost. it is difficult sometimes as a Christian homeschooler to be Spirit-led in educational choices if we are trying to conform to what our or someone else's view of "Christian homeschooling" is or is not. I feel our family is being called to a more relaxed educational style and I am SO encouraged by the existence of blogs like yours that dare to speak out of your freedom in Christ about your educational choices.