Early Education     K-12    

Taking the school out of schooling

Local families on ‘unschooling’ and how it works

library, reading, child reading

So many of us are familiar with the term homeschooling, but have you heard of unschooling? While homeschooling is pretty straightforward (teaching your child at home), unschooling is a little harder to define.

Unschooling is the notion that children are innate learners. When left to their own devices, they will seek out information and learn on their own. Parents who unschool see themselves as facilitators of learning opportunities rather than teachers.

Learning through life experience

When first faced with term “unschooling,” many parents see it as just letting your kids do whatever they want all day. The actuality of unschooling is that children learn through their natural lives and life experiences. So unless you lock yourselves up in a room with nothing, then learning is going to happen.

Simple trips to the store, bank or post office lead to learning. Seeing plays or musical concerts leads to learning. Talking to a grandparent or aunt leads to learning. Kids are natural born learners, curious beings, who will seek out learning in their interest areas. Now does that mean they are going to learn about a tadpole growing into a frog at the same time as all other 2nd graders? Probably not. Will they learn about the American Revolution at the same time as all other 4th graders? Doubt it.

But when they seek it out themselves, the learning can be so much more meaningful than being forced to memorize facts from a book.

READ MORE: Should you pay your student for good grades?

Letting the child lead

As an unschooling parent myself, I provide the exposure that allows my child to seek out information. As parents, we are the facilitators of their life experiences and we are responsible for offering our children as many rich experiences as we can give them.

For example, if my children are interested in the solar system, I would take them to a planetarium, get books out from the library on the solar system, or find videos on the topic. Amy Robertson Nielsen from Ulster County defines unschooling as “child-led learning.”

“My daughters choose the topic of interest and I endeavor to give them age appropriate resources to discover all they can about the topic at hand,” she says. “This includes field trips, books to read, finding experts to interview, internet work, and lots of discussion. To me, it’s always answering ‘why’ with the fullest extent possible. I don’t have to push them to do their work because they decide what we are learning and how we are going to go about learning it.”

Local resources

If they aren’t showing interest in anything (I have yet to have that happen) then I might bring them somewhere to try to stimulate curiosity.

As facilitators, we are responsible for offering a wide variety of experiences to our children. Without these experiences, how will they become exposed to all of the wonderful things in the world? Want your children to learn about the American Revolution? Go to all the Revolutionary War sites in our area. Want your children to learn about the life cycle of a butterfly? Get a butterfly kit and watch it happen in front of your eyes. Want your children to learn about the solar system? Go to a planetarium or check out books from the library and leave them laying around your house.

Here in the Hudson Valley we have Locust Grovethe FDR House, Val Kill, Boscobel, Washington’s Headquarters, The Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck, the Bardavon, UPAC, and Norrie Point just to name a few. We have many colleges locally that offer a wide variety of opportunities for our young learners. The possibilities are endless right here in our backyard!

Go to local library programs, local park programs, and local historical sites. Watch movies on topics of interest, find interactive websites, let your children buy something and figure out what the change should be. Let your children cook dinner, talk to a relative or friend that immigrated to this country, let them help you with a project around the house.

Finding their own answers

“Kids are sponges, they can learn no matter where they are,” says Robertson Nielsen. “They cannot help but learn since they know nothing but what they have experienced so far. Kids are wired for learning. What they are not wired for is sitting still for hours on end being lectured at. I am teaching my girls how to ask thorough and thoughtful questions and then to find the answers in as many resources as possible to discover the most factual answer they can.”

Think about all of the language, math, science, history, geography, reading, and writing, measuring, and learning that is going on with all of these activities. These activities will stay with your kids because they were meaningful. They didn't memorize facts out of a text to regurgitate on a test and then forget. They will remember because they experienced it, they acted it out, they used their imaginations and their bodies through play. And it only takes a few trips to local farms, historical sites, parks and the library.

The Hudson Valley has so much to offer for learners young and old alike! Even if your children go to school, you can still participate in all the wonderful activities here in the Hudson Valley. By offering those rich activities, you are giving your child meaningful learning experiences that will stay with them for life. Letting the child lead her own learning based on interests and passions is what unschooling is all about.

Abby Hoffman, an unschooling parent from Wappingers Falls, uses the Dutchess County Hot Air Balloon Festival as an example. “We didn’t just watch. We got home and looked into how hot air balloons work. We learned the history of hot air balloons and the science behind them. There is always something new. And to watch my daughter research and learn is a beautiful sight.”

Do you remember all of what you learned in school? Probably not much. Do you remember any of these types of experiences you had as a child? I'm positive that you do. Now that is what I call real learning.

Kelly Auriemmo is a mom, blogger, and unschooling facilitator from Poughkeepsie.