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Sacramento Parent Magazine

Prepare to Be (Un)schooled

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By Molly Dunham

Ah, summer break… No alarm clocks, lunchboxes, carpool lanes, homework or fundraisers. Isn't life sweet? Now imagine summer break year-round.


I know a few of you are saying, "No, thank you." (Perhaps you're already counting down the days until that first day of school.) But if you're intrigued by the idea of having your children home year-round, if you worry your child is barely engaged inside a classroom, or if you’ve ever watched your kids’ love of learning shine brightly during summer story times, family field trips and garden projects (only to disappear behind a sad, gray cloud when school resumes in fall), then you should know about unschooling.

What is unschooling?
A method of homeschooling, unschooling encourages a child’s learning without lesson plans, assigned textbooks or workbook pages. Many of us who grew up in public schools were led to believe that learning took place in a classroom, directed by a teacher, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday, September 'til June, and that we were only doing well if we got an "A." Unschoolers have discovered that learning can—and does—take place anywhere, at any time, and that it is a lifelong pursuit. Subject to the same local laws as other homeschoolers, unschoolers choose what, when and how they want to learn, free from concerns for state standards, grade levels and test scores.

The term “unschooling” was coined by 1970s education reform advocate John Holt. Initially used to describe the act of removing one’s children from school, the term has since evolved to describe the child-centered, self-directed education Holt advocated.

After reading Holt’s book, Teach Your Own, long-time Roseville resident Mary Griffith was inspired to unschool her two daughters (then 1 and 4). "We just kept on doing the same sorts of things we'd been doing – playing, drawing, reading stories, going to parks and the zoo, all sorts of kid things," says Griffith, who went on to write The Unschooling Handbook in 1998.

Asked to describe unschooling, Griffith refers to three characteristics discussed in chapter one of her book:

1. Trust that the child will learn
2. An environment conducive to exploration and experimentation
3. Adults as models and facilitators

Griffith explains, "If I wanted my kids to be readers, we not only had to read together, but they had to see me reading for my own purposes and pleasure. If I wanted them to investigate and explore what interested them, they had to see me doing the same with my own interests." In this way, unschooling parents teach their children how to be lifelong learners by their own example.

Interested in Unschooling?
Recommended Reading:

Teach Your Own and How Children Learn
by John Holt

The Unschooling Handbook
by Mary Griffith

Life Learning
an unschool magazine
a Web resource

The freedom to be flexible
In writing her third and latest book, Viral Learning: Reflections on the Homeschooling Life, Griffith discovered something fascinating about the unschooling journey. "Many of the people who had been firm school-at-homers had come around to unschooling as their kids had grown older. Similarly, most of the dogmatic unschoolers who'd been opposed even to the concept of a textbook had become more flexible.” Griffith continues, “It seems we all recognized that flexibility was the key, that our theories about what unschooling is or isn't must always yield to how our kids learn best."

Indeed, no two families approach their children's education the same way. Tracy S.* of Colfax, a homeschooling mom of three, takes a textbook-based approach to math and language arts. But when it comes to history and science, she sees that her children retain more through hands-on activities. History came alive when they attended history camp, sleeping in a tee-pee, making candles and working with a blacksmith. When her children became interested in geology, she made arrangements with the local geological society for a hands-on learning experience. "If the kids express interest in something,” says Tracy, “we go with it!"

One of the key principles of unschooling is trust that a child will learn from being engaged in the world around them and pursuing their own interests with encouragement and support from parents who want the very best for them.

Christie P.*, a Foresthill mom who has always unschooled her four children, says the choice to unschool unfolded naturally for her family. “When my oldest got to be school-age, sending him away to school didn’t feel right, so we didn't. We were already having so much fun playing, exploring and reading together that starting 'schoolwork' didn’t feel necessary when that first September rolled around.”

An un-standard approach
For families like Tracy’s and Christie’s, success is not measured by grades and test scores, but by their children’s love of learning. In fact, many unschooled children never take standardized tests.

“Looking back on my years of education,” says Christie, “the only things I actually still remember are subjects that I loved.” She imagined how different her own education would have been had she enjoyed the freedom to focus on those favorite subjects – “what fun I would have had!” After that realization, says Christie, “I really wanted to give my children that opportunity."

Mary Griffith, who unschooled her daughters all the way through high school, writes of her grown children, "Mostly, unschooling made them fairly self-sufficient and aware that they could figure out how to do whatever they decide they're interested in doing."

For families who choose to unschool, unschooling becomes much more than an educational method. It becomes a lifestyle. Unschooling families learn, play, work, and explore side by side, year-round. Still interested? Start unschooling today. Take your family on a nature walk, read a book together, research a topic of interest. The world is your classroom, prepare to be (un)schooled.

Molly Dunham lives, hikes, bikes, crafts, reads, takes pictures, raises chickens, and unschools her daughter and son in Auburn. Check out her blogs at and

*The local moms interviewed for this piece declined to have their full last names published.