In their early years of life, children learn to sit, stand, walk, talk, and scribble. They learn the names of people in their family. They’re insatiable learners—exploring their universes with endless curiosity. They do all of this without sitting in classrooms.
But once they turn 5 or 6, society seems to think they can’t or won’t learn independently anymore. Kids are put in classrooms at younger and younger ages. The nation’s largest teachers’ union wants the government to mandate full-day kindergarten for every 5 year old. How long before their call for universal preschool also becomes a mandate?
It seems that people have lost sight of the importance of free play when it comes to children learning. I first realized this when my oldest daughter was in school. We’d chosen a small, family-oriented, academically focused, Catholic school for our kids. While there was a lot we liked about the school’s atmosphere, I was troubled by the lack of free time for the children. With so much time structured, how would kids learn to cooperate, share, regulate their own behavior, and think creatively?
Eventually we switched to homeschooling, in large part to gain control over our lives. We wanted more flexibility and more family time. We wanted our kids to become independent and to love learning. We didn’t want to replicate school at home; we wanted to embrace learning in our home.
I hadn’t heard of unschooling back then, so I described our approach as “eclectic.” I didn’t use a formal curriculum other than for math. My kids learned history through books, videos, trips to museums, and discussions. They learned to write by writing—blogs, letters, stories, and even books. My oldest entered essay contests for fun and won thousands of dollars and a trip to NYC—now the other kids follow her lead. They enjoy writing, which I think is at least partly due to the freedom they’ve had.
Speech and debate has helped educate them in a number of ways. The research and writing skills they’ve acquired are transferrable to any field. Despite our casual approach to science in the lower grades, they’ve done quite well in college science classes as high schoolers. I think this is because they’re inquisitive and know how to think, research, and communicate.
I now know that our approach to homeschooling is often called unschooling or child-directed learning. It focuses on actual learning rather than checking off the boxes of school. More and more people are beginning to embrace unschooling. There are even unschooling “schools,” where kids have access to things like labs, workshops, apprenticeships, and art studios.
In a typical school—with a rigid curriculum, emphasis on grades and standardized tests, and students whose parents might not understand the concept—it might seem tough to embrace the idea of unschooling. However, finding ways to give students some freedom amid all the rules and layers of bureaucracy can help them take ownership of their education. If we want creative thinkers and problem solvers in future generations, we need to give them some freedom now.
Colleen Hroncich loves that homeschooling allows her to learn right alongside her children. A published author and former policy analyst, Colleen’s favorite subjects are economics/public policy and history. She has been active in several homeschool co-ops and is a speech and debate coach.