The Day I Realized I Was an Unschooler


Unschooling—I must admit I have never liked the name. It sounds so rebelious, so negative and many other things that I am not.   I have gone through life abiding by the rules. The “good girl” as many people  , including my husband, would describe me.   The reality is that I have always had an issue with the public school system since I was a young girl.   I was the daydreamer , always watching the clock on the wall slowly tick away.   “School” came easy for me and with little effort I made good grades, but was I really an engaged learner? Not until college was I able to fully immerse myself in my interests.   Although there were still parameters and guidelines, I felt free to make desicions in my learning and surround myself with people who were passionate about their field of study.   Graduate school was where I really began to analyze brain development and learning in children.  Here I quickly began to see the disconnect between brain research and current educational trends.   Why are schools so far behind from cognitive psychology?

It was 14 years ago when I sat in graduate school lectures and I still find the public school system is still trying figure out how to best educate the children of today.   When my daughter began preschool in 2005 I had no idea the profound impact it would have on my views of education.   Until the age of three she had been home with me and I was her first educator.   It all came so naturally. We read books, we explored nature, we went on field trips and we travelled.   I followed her interests.   She had an early desire to write, draw and read so I played on that. Learning was fun and I wanted to keep it that way. I did not want to see her insatiable appetite for learning ever go away.   Believe it or not Montessori education was not familiar to me ,but the moment I began reading Montessori’s work I felt that this was developmental psychology integrated into educational pedagogy. Why is this not in every school and where do I sign up?! My daughter began Montessori preschool and our family began a beautiful journey of grace, freedom within limits, and peace.   When it was time for elementary school we saw no other choice the private Montessori school. Our middle son joined in the Montessori preschool ranks and I eventually left my job has a mental health therapist for a teaching position at their school.   It was a more than a school—it was our village—full of love, support and encouragement of learning.

Three years ago we decided to move to Charlotte, NC  and that meant the decision of regular school lurked in our minds.   I had wanted to homeschool when my daughter was in kindergarten but it still seemed taboo and so against what we are supposed to do in society.   But after researching I realized how prevalent it was in North and South Carolina.   After much contemplation we decided to give it a try.   I began as many parents do—school at home.   Since I had Montessori experience I wanted to implement this at home as much as possible but I was swayed by curriculum choices and standards. In my crazy mind I came to the conclusion that I could follow the age appropriate curriculum and still have plenty of free time for the kids to explore their interests and passions.   In addition, the curriculum I picked was hands on with a mix of Charlotte Mason and Classical theories—-so it was going to be fun‼ No, it wasn’t –the kids were not fully engaged.   They even dreaded the science and history (which are their favorite subjects).   It wasn’t the subject matter, instead it was reading out of the textbook and following someone else’s experiments and activities laid out in a certain order. It was learning out of context.   It was forced learning, at that moment, because that is what came next in the text. My daughter did not want to study American History the entire year just because it was the 4th grade standard.   My son wanted to explore the Revolutionary War for months instead of a week. We were taking field trips regularly on our own and with our homeschool groups. The places and subjects we were exposed to on field trip classes led to the desire to explore those topics in depth at home.   After a couple of months we had severly neglected the expensive textbooks and I was filled with mixed emotions. We haven’t been doing school! But we were learning ………wasn’t that better?


Homeschooling was becoming a double edge sword and it didn’t have to be .   I was fighting my Montessori beliefs and holding on to the public education system values. I was in panic mode because pages upon pages in our textbooks had been unturned. But we had been reading a plethora of non-fiction and fiction books. The library had become our second home.   Nothing set my mind at ease until my kids took the Stanford that first spring.   Despite little traditional curriculum exposure, my kids tested above average.   I had proof on paper that my kids had learned that school year. The proof satisfied my confidence to report to the state that the first school year was a success. I wasn’t failing my kids.   Most importantly it gave my confidence and valdation that interest-led learning works.   Could I call myself an unschooler?

It would take another two years before I would call us unschoolers.   After all, I rely heavily on a variery of influences—Montessori, Peter Gray, Jean Piaget, cognitive psychologists, and Charlotte Mason to name a few. Just like in my clincial practice I am eclectic in nature.   Rarely in life or in any discipline is it safe to rely solely on one practice or theory.   I even read teacher blogs to get ideas for projects and ideas so I cannot be an unschooler, right? It was not until I began reading a mountain of unschooling blogs while assisting in the development of the Resource Guide for Class Dismissed Class Dismissed Trailerthat it hit me like a ton of bricks—oh my word, I am an unschooler. A full fledged unschooler!

So how did I know I was a unschooler?


  1. Unschooling is eclectic— Unschoolers may not use a boxed curriculum based on standards but that doesn’t mean unschoolers never use texts, take courses , or use other materials. Unschoolers use these materials when the child is interested in pursuing a subject or content. For example, my daughter expressed interest in Latin so we discussed the way to best learn latin would probably be through a dvd/workbook program.  Drawing from different philosophies and resources that follow the child’s path of learning is hallmark of unschooling.
  2. Unschooling is child-led or interest-led—In our home we quickly moved from curriculum based on age/grade and pursued subjects based on our children’s interests.   We are not learning things because curriculum says we should at this or that age. Instead,  we have immersed ourselves in topics such as Greek/Roman history and mythology, American Revolution, Latin, computer programming, ciruits , and robotics because my children have gravitated to these subjects.   We are free to spend months on certain topics and even come back to explore a subject on a deeper level after leaving it for a period of time because they are interested in it again.
  3. Unschooling is believing that learning is natural—I believe children have a natural desire to learn. It may not always look like what traditional school says learning is but they are always learning and exploring in their environment.

Unschooling may not be the name I would choose for our learning environment. But it is a movement that has been around long before we have been homeschooling.  My favorite quote on unschooling is by Pat Farenga:

“I define unschooling as allowing children as much freedom to learn in the world, as their parents can comfortably bear. … live and learn together, pursuing questions and interests as they arise and using conventional schooling on an “on demand” basis, if at all. This is the way we learn before going to school and the way we learn when we leave school and enter the world of work.”

We fit into this category by being interest-led, natural learners.  I tend to use Montessori materials relevant to what we are learning along with field trips, classes, books, movies, games and apps.  I can now safely say I am proud to be an unschooler! If your beliefs are similar to the above principles then you can be proud to be an unschooler too!




About Jennifer Walker, MS

I currently blog about mindfulness, meaningful life-learning, Montessori and Childhood Apraxia of Speech.
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