The Unschooling Handbook: How to Use the Whole World as Your Child’s Classroom

Mary Griffith surveys unschooling
families and compiles their responses.  She reports on the theories behind and implications of Unschooling, and provides suggestions for general concerns and specific academic subjects:

Present-day Americans have difficulty imagining education that does not resemble school.  But until the 1850’s “common school” movement,

school was mostly optional.  Most knowledge children needed to become competent adults was acquired through doing tasks along with adults and knowing that this work was essential to their livelihood.  Along with the establishment of public schools and compulsory attendance laws came a general belief that school was essential for children to become modern-day citizens.  There was little discussion about whether school was indeed an indispensable institution.

In the 1970’s, educator John Holt used the term “unschooling” to describe the act of homeschooling. The term now refers to the specific style of child-centered learning advocated by Holt. Today this method occupies between ten and fifty percent of the homeschooling movement.

Unschooling in Practice:

Unschooling is an informal approach to education based on the premise that people who make their own decisions perform more competently than those whose behavior is controlled or judged by others. Unschoolers take issue with conventional education: If you take responsibility away from children, they have no stake in the outcome and learn to follow orders over problem-solving. How is one neat package of information the authoritative “education?” School puts parents in conflict with teachers. Unschooling is easier for parents because they need not plan lessons or grade tests but more difficult in that learning is ever-present and collaborative.

Unschoolers are curious and natural learners at any time or in any setting. They know people acquire skills at different paces and ages. They are interested in and tolerant of a wide variety of people. They are confident. They are critical thinkers.

When deciding whether to practice unschooling, weigh practical considerations such as legal, financial, and scheduling issues.


Everything your children interfaces with is an implement for their learning. Supply books that respond to the children’s interests, not textbooks, but “real” books written by and for people with an interest in the subject. Help them learn to search for those books, this will help them to think and read critically. Gardening, game playing, working with art supplies, and music are all good resources; it is not important to spend a lot of money or buy “kits”.

Technology can be a part of unschooling in the forms of television, computer and internet. Just because a TV program or computer software is not designated as “educational” does not mean that it offers no potential for learning.

Your child may need an outside instructor to teach a subject that you are unfamiliar with. Unschooled children may adapt well to courses where instruction is “sequenced to develop physical skills” such as with ballet or martial arts. They may not enjoy group lessons which require strict or product-oriented curricula, where other children are uninterested, and may be frustrated by inattention or misbehavior of less focused students. If you choose a private tutor, allow your child to be involved with the selection process.

Comparisons with “Schooled” Peers:

Both parents and children worry about “keeping up” with schooled peers. Remind them that schools teach different topics at different grades and encourage unnecessary competition and verification of learning through testing. Unschoolers can keep records other than or in addition to those required by states law in the form of grids, journals, portfolios, or informal transcripts. Not many unschoolers use tests as a way of measuring ability.

Kids might want to try going to school; sometimes an experimental week in a classroom satisfies their curiosity. If they choose to attend school full time, the family may need to adjust. Unschoolers who go to school tend to do well because they want to learn, it was their choice to attend, and they are aware school is not their only option.


Children will learn to read if allowed to do so at their own pace and in the way which works best for them. Read to your children to set the example and garner enthusiasm for reading. Children will learn to write along with learning to read and development of fine motor skills. Many parents downplay concerns about

penmanship in exchange for encouraging content by becoming scribes or using the computer as a tool. Projects or email can promote writing skills.

Math can be taught through cooking, money, games, books. Often unschoolers with no formal training in math acquire mathematics through real world applications or can catch up with formally instructed peers easily. You do not need to keep up with your child in math, she is the one doing the learning.


Science is a “matter of attitude.” It involves observation, prediction and experimentation. Studies of nature or toys like pulleys, magnifying glasses, or binoculars are all ways for unschoolers to explore science. Older teens who desire a more formal “lab science” equivalent might want a textbook or mentor.


History need not be learned in chronological order or require memorization of dates and names. Maps and timelines can assist in teaching non-chronological history. Books, movies, family genealogy, environmental living programs and travel can all be vehicles to exploring history.


In a traditional school’s once a week regimen, focus on product, neatness, and “talent” in the arts can subdue the enthusiasm of children. Unschoolers tend to continue with enjoyed activities beyond a traditional school age. Because they are unaccustomed to “prescriptive” instruction, they may have an easier time experimenting or purely enjoying their informal arts activities. Most children prefer professional supplies to children’s kits. Some may desire formal instruction at a certain point. If so, talk with your children about lessons first – what are their objectives? Would they like reminders to practice?

Unschooling as a Lifestyle:

Unschooling is a way of life that has many advantages over
conventional schooling. It tailors learning to the needs of children and families. Unschooled children are more in touch with themselves and have a fire to learn that can otherwise be vanquished in school. Unschooling can reweave family and community. It does not arbitrarily categorize areas or levels of learning. It empowers its practitioners in their own uniqueness and so encourages tolerance of all uniqueness. It encourages the pursuit of passions and joy. A full society of unschoolers would be a better society.