Unschooling Young Children

Children are born learning—there's considerable proof they even learn to recognize voices while in the womb. No one must teach a healthy child to walk, talk, and socialize and no one thought to do so until modern times. Why mess with success? Yet we do—How To Teach Your Baby To Talk programs and their ilk continue to appear, as if children can't learn their Mother Tongue without a professional mediator or will learn better with one. Such are the fears of educated people!

You don't need to unschool children not old enough to fall under the compulsory schooling law because they're doing it naturally. Watch and appreciate your children's learning and growth during these amazing years and you'll see for yourself how much genuine, important learning occurs just by your child's engagement with the world and the people they meet in it.

GWS magazine is full of such stories, as is the work of John Holt and others noted throughout this site. I want to note these research studies, however, because they can be particularly good to overcome skepticism about children's abilities to learn, particularly among educators (isn't that a sad irony?). The first is a study, Young Children Learning, that quantifies and analyzes the depth and effectiveness of children's conversations at home and at school that "reveals the richness of the home as a learning environment and shows how much children can learn through the ordinary conversations of everyday life."

Young Children Learning by Barbara Tizard and Martin Hughes (Harvard University Press, 1984; 2003). Turns upside-down the commonly held belief that professionals know better than working-class parents how to educate and bring up children.

The double-edged sword of pedagogy: Instruction limits spontaneous exploration and discovery. Research from MIT published in Cognition, 2010. A study that finds "childrenrestrict their exploration both after direct instruction to themselves and after overhearing direct instruction given to another child; they do not show this constraint after observing direct instruction given to an adult or after observing a non-pedagogical intentional action." In other words, exactly as John Holt observed in 1964 in his classroom, kids' curiousity and drive are dampened by unasked-for teaching!

Unschooling Children: The Elementary Years

Most homeschooling/unschooling occurs for families with children in grades K–8, with the largest segment being middle school (grades 5–8). Here are some ideas about what you can do with your children at home and in your community, as well as ideas for working with your children instead of working on them to help them learn. Being a responsive parent is far more important to unschooling success than trying to become a professional teacher for your children.

Below are some recommendations for examining common topics that come up in homeschooling. You'll find many more stories just by browsing the GWS Issue Archives and GWS Selected Stories.

Am I Doing Enough at Home with My Children?

Here are some curriculum guides for you to see what professional educators demand from their students on an annual basis. You will probably find that even though you're not following a standardized curriculum, the unique curriculum you are making with your family actually covers much of the same material. Further, you may find your children are at the same level or ahead in some areas of the standard curriculum and behind in others—just like most children in school.

Not only do you have the ability to remediate those areas in the future (as in school), you can choose to address those areas later, ignore them if they are irrelevant to your children's needs, or approach them in an interdisciplinary fashion through projects. It is your home, your school, and you can co-create the curriculum with your children as your learn and grow together, so focus on what your children want to learn now, regardless of what the school curriculum says.

GWS has lots of stories about how families create their own curricula over time, but here are some standard curricula for you to check out and, hopefully, put your mind at ease that you and your children are "doing enough."

You can also find local charter and private schools that use different scopes and sequences for learning in their schools. Contact them and see if they'll provide a curriculum outline for your child's age to you or research their curricula online:

  • Montessori Schools
  • Steiner/Waldorf Schools
  • Independent/Alternative Schools
  • Christian/Jewish/Muslim Schools
  • Reggio Emilia Schools

 

How Children Learn Through Play

Learning Through Fantasy Play, in GWS 64.

Books and articles about the deep value of play for children

American Journal of Play, Spring 2011. A special edition devoted to children's free play and edited by Peter Gray.

Child's Work: Taking Children's Choices Seriously by Nancy Wallace

Free at Last by Dan Greenberg and Mimsy Sadofsky. The work and philosophy behind the Sudbury Valley School.

Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life by Peter Gray (2013). An amazing presentation of hunter-gatherer cultures and how people are adapting many of these ideas for modern use in school and home.

Home Grown: Adventures in Parenting off the Beaten Path, Unschooling, and Reconnecting with the Natural World, by Ben Hewitt. A beautifully written book about homesteading in VT, raising boys whose passion is exploring nature and trapping animals, and how this family used unschooling to make it all work.

How Children Learn (revised edition) by John Holt. Has great chapters on games, play, and fantasy, and how children use play to get into the world, not out of it.

Peter Gray's Freeedom to Learn blog for Psychology Today magazine.


The Self-Respecting Child by Alison Stallibrass. Foreword by John Holt.

On Older Readers

Growing Without Schooling published many stories about children—most often boys—who, if not compelled, do not learn to read until they are older than their schooled peers. However, anecdotal and research evidence shows that when children learn to read when they decide to, they quickly get up to speed (it takes months, not years to learn to read when motivated) and they are more likely to continue reading for pleasure and information as adults.

Articles about older readers from the GWS Archives:

GWS 44: "Starting to read at 12"; "Understanding When He Needs To"

GWS 55: "2 Hours of Tutoring"; "Stress of Early School"; "School Hurts Reading"; "Reading at 1 0"; "Another Older Reader;" "Not Yet Reading at 8."

GWS 76: "Overcame Difficulty"; "Poor Reader Loves to Read"; "Learning at 10"; Concentrating on Two Things"; "Outside Pressures."

GWS 77: "Feeling OK About Being An Older Reader"; "Older Readers."

GWS 91: "Reading at 10 and 11"

Academic Books that Discuss Older Readers and Present Reading as a Pleasure for Life, Not a Race Done for School

Rethinking Learning to Read is the latest book to explore how homeschoolers learn to read using different schedules and techniques (leaving children alone to read is one!) than school permits.

Better Late Than Early: A New Approach to Your Child's Education
By Raymond S. Moore, Dennis R. Moore, Dorothy N. Moore

Responding to Children's Thoughts and Ideas

Don't destroy your time with your children by seeking to use every good experience you have together as a "teachable moment." Take the time to savor and enjoy your children's crazy ideas, wild stories, funny theories, and observations about people and soon you will learn how you can best help them learn because they are telling you all the time—don't diminish communication with your child as happens in school, nurture it instead.

An interview with philosopher Gareth Matthews about responding to children's thoughts is in GWS 75.

Books about Responding to Children's Thoughts and Ideas:

How Children Learn at Home
By Alan Thomas, Harriet Pattison

On Math for Children

Articles about math are strewn throughout the GWS Archives.
GWS 79
has a feature story about Enjoying Math.

Unschooling Math by Susannah Sheffer is a collection of stories from GWS.

Books about Math for Children

Anchor Math by Leslie Hart

Arithmetic the Easy Way by Edward Williams

Elementary Algebra by Harold Jacobs

The I Hate Math Book by Linda Alison

Math by Kids by Susan Richman

The Math Kit: A Three-Dimensional Tour Through Mathematics by Ron Van Der Meer & Bob Gardner

A Mathematical Mystery Tour by Mark Wahl

Mathematics: A Human Endeavor by Harold Jacobs

On Academic Testing for Children

GWS 57 has a feature on Testing and the group FairTest.

Books against Academic Testing for Children

Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes by Alife Kohn.

What Children Learning at Home and in Their Community Do Instead of School Work

Earning Our Own Money_Front cover_5.jpg

Earning Our Own Money: Homeschoolers 13 and under tell their stories.

The illustrations in this booklet are by 13-year-old Emily Linn, who also writes about how she earned money by giving harp lessons.